Girlfriend exposes some unsettling but often unsaid truths about how the mainstream population treats and interacts with individuals with Down Syndrome (and therefore presumed intellectual disability).
The movie starts off with Evan, a rotund young man with the obvious physical characteristics of Down’s Syndrome, engaging in some pre-Facebook networking. The period in which this film is set is indeterminate, as Evan uses a rotary dial phone to make a series of calls to a list of friends and relatives, the settings and fashions seem contemporary, but nobody seems to have or mention home computers or internet access. Evan has a voice associated with commonly-held ideas about people with mental retardation, slow, deep, and slightly slurred. (It seems people with Down’s Syndrome have a significantly high incidence of hearing problems.) He has large, childish handwriting, speaks in short words and simple sentences, and seems to have problems with social subtleties and time perception (I don’t know if these last two are typical of individuals with Down Syndrome, but they are frequently present in other conditions, and seem to be the most obvious impairment to Evan’s ability to function in adult life).
Evan lives with his mother, and they spend a great deal of time together during their daily routine; they eat meals, watch soap operas, and television dramas together. Evan has an incredible memory for soap opera plots (one of those moments distributed throughout the picture-and there are a fair number of them-which may be intended to cause the audience to question their perceptions of people with Down Syndrome). Perhaps Evan is among the fortunate ones with borderline to average IQ scores, but the film does not make this clear. His scholastic capabilities are no longer relevant, for the foreseeable future he has a dead-end job, and a secure if somewhat sheltered life. Evan and his mother both work in a diner-type restaurant a short car-ride, or a long walk, away from their home. Though Evan not only waits tables, but takes out garbage and does other such dirty jobs, his continued employment is jeopardized by instances where he is late coming back from his break or takes too long in the restroom. The movie does a very good job of portraying the fact that the higher-ups at work often say negative things about him, rather than to him, and he overhears them. One scene shows Evan engaged in a task while commentary from the kitchen is heard as a running narrative in which the kitchen supervisor tells his mother that he only hired Evan as a favor to her because she didn’t want to leave him home alone while she worked, but that his taking more than an hour for a lunch break outside of the premises as a regular practice was reason to fire him.
The audience are shown that on at least one such overly-long lunch break, Evan pays a visit to Candy, an attractive young woman he has been carrying the torch for since high school. Though Candy surely is aware of Evan’s attraction to her, she is not about to reciprocate, due to the social convention that someone of “normal” intellectual and societal abilities _shouldn’t_ be romantically involved with a person whose intellectual capabilities are suspect, if not conspicuously lower. On one occasion, when his knock on the door of her house was not responded to, he got a ladder and peeped in the window, seeing her in a bubble bath. Though Candy knows he’s harmless, still, such behavior would be more than merely frowned upon at any other time and by any other person.
Evan has the double-edged sword of living in a small rural town, in which everybody seems to know everyone else. This provides him a strong, if informal, support system of sorts, which proves invaluable when his mother suddenly dies, and Evan is too shocked to know how to handle the situation. However, the downside of this sort of community is that everybody knows who and what everyone else is doing, and jealousies fester. The object of Evan’s affection is a single mother whose ex-boyfriend Russ is still possessive of her, but strangely unwilling to help pay her rent. Russ uses every opportunity to try to get sexual favors from Candy even though they’re no longer “together”. She’s pretty much stuck with dodging his advances by day because they work in the same auto body shop (jobs are truly scarce in this town), but has banned him from coming to the house because he accidentally hurt his small son Simon when they got into a dispute concerning Simon’s paternity.
At one point, Russ meets a suspected romantic rival at a party at which both Candy and Evan are present, and everyone witnesses Russ instigate a fistfight with the guy, who, to complicate things, is married to someone else. Evan sees his opportunity to present himself to Candy as a knight in shining armor when a distant relation, intending to keep Evan in food for a while, but unable to take him in, gives him a few thousand dollars in cash at his mother’s funeral. On one occasion when Candy is short with the rent, Evan leaves her a thousand dollars as an anonymous gift at her door. She uses it, and only afterwords finds out that it was from Evan. Though she is not romantically interested in Evan, she clearly wants to avoid even the appearance of exploiting him or taking advantage of him, and asks him pointedly about the money and where he got it. As additional opportunities to help out financially present themselves, Evan starts seeing more of Candy, and the relationship starts getting closer.
It isn’t long before Russ finds out, and presenting himself as a friend, starts to pump Evan for information about Candy’s life, and feed him false information about how to gain her favor, e.g., “she likes it rough”. Perhaps it is no accident that Russ has a serpent tattooed on his bicep.
In this small community where people think nothing of leaving windows and doors open, Russ subsequently finds an opportunity to take some of the money Evan leaves for Candy and hold it hostage in order to get additional sexual favors from Candy. Evan happens to get home early and witness Russ sexually exploiting Candy after Candy had initially called him saying that she couldn’t find the money. While Evan does not directly confront Russ, his conduct towards Candy stands in profound contrast to that of Russ.
Whatever Evan’s level and nature of disability, his moral and ethical sense is not disabled. Russ, on the other hand, appears to have the closest thing modern psychiatry and secular thinking will admit of to a moral disability, as among other things, he shows no qualms about manipulating someone he considers his societal and intellectual inferior. The character of Russ, to all appearances, displays the characteristics of a personality disorder.
One day when Russ briefly kidnaps Simon to take him to have a paternity test, and runs his car off the road, Evan finds the wreckage and carries Simon back, though when Simon went missing suspicion initially fell upon Evan.
The movie concludes with Evan having gained Candy as a girlfriend in every sense of the word.