Critics often praise pessimism over optimism. What if portraying the unconventional and exceptional helps create a kinder world?
Video via MOVIECLIPS Classic Trailers on YouTube.
Lars Lindstrom is twenty-seven years old, withdrawn and incommunicative. He’s only able to function because of the politeness and reserved nature of his hometown, which lies somewhere in the northern portion of the American Midwest. Whatever is going on within him, his neighbors and coworkers know it’s none of their business, so a smile and a few words suffice from day to day. As he passes between work, home and church in his tiny Toyota Tercel, he’s as frozen and cold as the snow that blankets the ground.
His status-quo is threatened when his brother, Gus, and sister-in-law, Karin, move back home and announce that they are expecting a baby. On top of that, there’s a cute girl at work named Margo who seems curiously attracted to him. All of this creates a crisis for Lars, who is desperately afraid of human interaction, especially the kind of conversation and physical contact expected from family. He moves into a room beside the detached garage and keeps his distance. Karin is wounded and worried by his rejection, and her fears are justified when Lars decides to come to dinner with a guest, a life-sized doll named Bianca. Lars purchased her on the Internet and it soon becomes painfully obvious that he believes she is a real human being.
Gus and Karin consult a psychiatrist who advises that Lars seems delusional and, due to his fragility, agrees to treat him while pretending to treat Bianca. The catch? She needs Gus and Karin to go along with his delusion. Gus, voicing the pessimistic thoughts of what we all like to call the “real” world, protests that “Everyone will laugh at him.” “And at you,” Dr. Berman answers with blunt honesty. There is no quick fix for Lars and no guarantee that he will ever snap out of it. Karin agrees to try Dr. Berman’s method, and, after a brief and futile attempt to talk some sense into his brother, Gus comes around too. As his delusion begins to affect the entire community, we see those around Lars deal with it for his sake. As we come to understand why Lars has retreated into this fantasy and confirm how childlike he truly is, we come to root for him and look forward to the day he will have the courage for a relationship.
I found Lars and the Real Girl spellbinding, and I’m one of those who prefers a dark and violent film to a disingenuous and insincere film that bills itself as “uplifting”. The unconventional nature of the story and its setting in a northern Mid-West community of Nordic descent keep it from getting overly sentimental. The cast is excellent across the board. Emily Mortimer and Paul Schneider are winsome and completely believable as Karin and Gus and it is their response to Lars (Ryan Gosling) that won me over. Gosling, who received several award nominations, is phenomenal as the anti-social and childlike Lars.
Some will not allow themselves to see this movie and will miss the gentle, sweet nature of the film and its potential for changing the way we see others. Yes, Bianca is an anatomically correct sex doll, suggested by one of Lars’s coworkers who is a lonely goofball and maybe a bit of a pervert. But Lars isn’t after sex. He’s after someone he can talk to and hold who won’t cause him pain. Much like a child who plays out grown up scenes with dolls or toys, he’s playing at human interaction. It’s a much healthier response than some outsiders take in our society.
Equally fascinating are the effects of Bianca on the community and Lars’s family. Some people enjoy dressing her and styling her hair, some take her to the hospital to visit sick children, who find her a wonderful distraction from the pain and fear they are experiencing. In fact, she becomes so popular that Lars feels left out and the fantasy begins to wear thin. Karin and Gus realize things about each other and their family while explaining them to Bianca, revelations that are sometimes uncomfortable and sometimes wonderful. She gives them an excuse to talk about family matters and feelings, something that members of restrained families will understand. One of the most poignant scenes in the film is when Lars, inspired by Bianca, asks his brother how he knew he was a man. Gus’s answer takes a few minutes, but, after some fumbling, reveals his vulnerability and shame over his own selfishness. This in turn foreshadows Lars’s struggle with the selfishness of his fantasy world.
Miraculously, the film itself never stoops to cruelty, nor does it ever become obscene or even bawdy. Writer Nancy Oliver, also known for Six Feet Under, received an Oscar nomination. The work Oliver and director Craig Gillespie put into Lars and the Real Girl deserves accolades and attention. It isn’t easy to tackle a stereotype and make it a human story, especially when taboo is involved.
Video via Writers Guild Foundation on YouTube.
It has been said that the responses of the community are unrealistic and too positive. There are no beatings, no violence, and barely even any eye-rolling. We see a workplace in which coworkers communicate the potential of an awkward situation ahead of time and everyone does their best to avoid it. We see a tolerant Christian pastor and congregation which allow the health and well being of one lonely man to trump its traditional image. Lars and the Real Girl portrays a world in which people help each other through mental illness without taboos, cruelty and judgement, a world in which the ultimate health of an individual is more important than the momentary discomfort of a community. That’s a world worth imagining, don’t you think?