Justin Lerner’s first feature film skilfully sets a traditional theme – a relationship between two people that seem an unlikely match – within unconventional circumstances. The result is “Girlfriend,” a gentle yet complex exploration of the nature of love.

Evan (Evan Sneider) is a young man with Down Syndrome who lives with his mother Celeste (played by the ever-commanding Amanda Plummer) in a working-class town hard hit by the recession. Evan holds down a job and has a circle of neighborhood friends. Although he is completely self-sufficient, he and Celeste enjoy a close relationship with shared evenings in front of their favorite television shows.

Then, unexpectedly, Evan comes into a large amount of money and, rather than do anything for himself, he decides to use his new wealth to pursue Candy (Shannon Woodward), a local girl that he’s been in love with since high school. Since then, Candy has made some bad decisions. She is now a single parent with huge debts, who cannot shake the attentions of her volatile ex-boyfriend, Russ (Jackson Rathbone of the “Twilight” films). Knowing full well that money always complicates things, Candy nevertheless accepts Evan’s offer of financial help, leading to an intricate tangle of emotions, expectations and secrets between Candy, Evan and Russ.

In his first feature film role, Evan Sneider is pitch-perfect as a young man in pursuit of his heart’s desire and as the moral center of the story. Evan’s pureness of intent only serves to highlight the mercurial, self-interested and often cruel motives of Russ, played with a fiery, danger-ridden intensity by Rathbone. This is not lost on Candy, who knows she doesn’t deserve Russ’s abuse, yet doesn’t feel worthy of Evan’s unfettered compassion.

Making excellent use of its pastoral setting as counterpoint to volatile human emotions, “Girlfriend” gathers power as it unfolds, leaving the viewer with a thump to the heart that will linger long after the lights come up. [Synopsis by Jane Schoettle/Toronto International Film Festival]

The Automatic Hate

When Davis Green’s alluring young cousin Alexis appears on his doorstep one night, he discovers that his father has kept a side of his family secret for thirty years. Against his father’s wishes, Davis travels to rural, Upstate New York to meet his other cousins. Quickly developing a strong connection with them, he sets out with Alexis to reunite their broken family. But in getting to know each other, Davis and Alexis realize they are perhaps more like their own fathers than they thought. As the pair uncovers the incident that tore their family apart, the two cousins must resist the temptation to keep their fathers’ deep-rooted grudge going, rather than end it. [Synopsis courtesy of SXSW Film Festival]