The snowy, bleakish start of Lars and the Real Girl doesn't quite prepare you for the strained winsomeness and warmth that follow. But it does make clear the point of departure for Lars (Ryan Gosling), yearning for what he knows not. He first appears gazing from his window onto a wintry exterior, skittish when he's approached by his pregnant sister-in-law Karin (Emily Mortimer); as he draws back into shadow, hoping not to be noticed, she announces her intention: "I'm inviting you for breakfast." Lars demurs and she retreats -- to the cozy home she shares with Lars' brother Gus (Paul Schneider).
Her trip is only a few steps: Lars lives in their garage. More precisely, he lives in the garage of the house where he grew up, Gus having taken on the house on the death of their father, by all accounts a very sad and withdrawn widower. It's not long before you learn the ostensible reason for this arrangement: years ago, Gus moved out, saving himself and leaving his little brother alone with dad, distraught and resourceless. Gus has felt guilty ever since ("I never thought about him, worries Gus now, "and then the two of us move back here all fat and happy and he moves into the goddamn garage like the family dog.") And Lars, well, he's turned out to be strange.
This is the reductive conceit of Lars and the Real Girl, Lars' representative incongruity: he's so unlike everyone else that he becomes their cause and sign of sanity. He can pass for merely socially awkward, his job in an office cubicle marking his sympathetic abjection, a point underlined by the fact that a "cute" coworker, Margo (Kelli Garner), has a crush on him. Lars conveniently embodies the lesson the movie means to teach, announced within five minutes, when he and the rest of his teeny community attend church: "In all the world," goes the preaching, "There are books and book and books of law. But in our world there is really only one law: the lord has told us what to do love one another."
Lars puts that law to the test when he finds a way to manage his loneliness. Following the suggestion of obnoxious coworker Kurt (Maxwell McCabe-Lokos), he checks out a website proffering custom-designed life-sized sex dolls, each assigned a life story like Cabbage Patch Kids. When a large box is delivered to the garage, Karin is mystified. She and Gus are soon horrified to find that Bianca has arrived. Lars brings her along to dinner at his brother's, where she sits next to him in fishnet top and miniskirt, her red lips parted in that odd half-seductive, half-menacing guppy-gape typical of such products. Lars, giddy that she's finally come, explains that Bianca needs a wheelchair, that she's "from the tropics," half Brazilian and half Swedish, and that she'll need to borrow some of Karin's clothes because her luggage was stolen. A missionary raised by nuns, Lars says, Bianca is currently "on a sabbatical so she can experience the world."
That would be Lars' world. With eyebrows raised and glances exchanged, Karin and Gus go along, determining that they should all take Bianca to see Dr. Berman (Patricia Clarkson). Kindly and wise in the way that small-town doctors tend to be in the movies, she advises letting Lars work out whatever trauma he is apparently feeling gradually, to go along with the delusion until he finds his way back ("Chances are, he's been decompensating for some time"). Gus is beside himself at this news ("We've gotta fix him!"), but the doctor assures them that her "special treatment" sessions with Bianca (which will "really" be with Lars) will eventually solve the puzzle.
During the solving, the townspeople rally round Lars, accepting Bianca as a "real girl," inviting her to parties, volunteering her for community service, bringing her to the hospital to visit with the "bald children." As Bianca becomes increasingly popular, Lars has to deal with her "independence," her life apart from him. He worries about his inability to "grow up," and asks Gus when he knew he became a man. This gives Gus a chance to rearticulate the film's theme: "It's not like you're all one thing or another. There's still a kid inside you. You grow up when you decide to do right. And not just what's right for you but what's right for everybody, even when it hurts." That is, what Gus did not do, what Lars will do, and what the supportive locals have been doing since Bianca showed up (you might wonder where all these doting folks were as Lars was being raised by his damaged dad).
As it celebrates the healing powers of quirk (especially the collective sort), Craig Gillespie's movie (written by Nancy Oliver) is premised on some tedious and seemingly comforting truisms concerning the unfathomable mysteries of women and pregnancy, in connection with the ceaseless rhythms of birth-and-death. The film is very careful not to make Lars at all kinky or sexed: he doesn't put Bianca to the use for which she has been designed (one uncharitable young male observer puts it this way: "He's in love with that slutty hunk of silicone"). But it also doesn't invite you inside his hermetic sensibility. Rather, it watches him along with Gus, Karin, and the good doctor, all revealing their own vulnerabilities and desires as they cater to his.
It's no surprise that Bianca is a vehicle for Lars' integration. It is disheartening that she must follow a typical plot route in order to serve this function, and to a lesser extent, that the film indulges in predictable montagey goo to display Lars' route toward that human girl, Margo. Still, the film offers small pleasures, apart from his standard maternity and abandonment anxieties (most having to do with Gosling's subtle performance). When Lars sees Margo's upset that her office-ornament teddy bear has been hung in a noose by Kurt, he matter of factly performs mouth-to-mouth. As she watches him, glowing with appreciation, all that look-how-quirky doll business is both accentuated and rejected. It's not precisely redemption -- the movie is all over that in much more obvious ways -- but it is sweet and affecting.
Lars and the Real GirlDirector: Craig Gillespie
Cast: Ryan Gosling, Emily Mortimer, Paul Schneider, Patricia Clarkson, Kelli Garner
MPAA rating: PG-13
First date: 2007
US Release Date: 2007-10-12 (Limited release)
Lars and The Real Girl is a sweet movie that shows the power of true community integration. It’s the story of a young man who needs help and finds it with his family, friends, co-workers and church. It’s the kind of story that needs to be told more often in the face of the cynical stories told today.
Lars and the Real Girl was made in 2007 and stars a pre-stardom Ryan Gosling as Lars. He’s a withdrawn, awkward but sweet young man who lives in the separated garage of his brother and pregnant sister-in-law, who try to get him to be more social. One day, he brings home a “Real Doll,” a life-sized sex doll, whom he introduces as Bianca. It is clear that Lars believes Bianca is a real person. They go along with the delusion, and his therapist encourages them to continue to do so. His brother and sister-in-law encourage the rest of the community to go along as well, and out of love for Lars, they do so. Bianca soon becomes a member of the community, with friends, a job and activities without him. Lars continues to see his therapist, and over the course of the movie, becomes less dependent on her. Eventually, she dies, and Lars takes tentative new steps towards a new relationship.
This movie really says something about what community support should look like, and how it can help. Lars’ therapist, played by Patricia Clarkson, tells his brother and sister-in-law “this isn't necessarily a bad thing. What we call mental illness isn't always just an illness. It can be a communication; it can be a way to work something out.” While a little simplistic, it’s a nice change from the constant refrain that people with mental illnesses are always going to be wrong or broken in some way. Lars’ brother is concerned that the townspeople are going to laugh at Lars and his wife points that he’s afraid they’re going to laugh at him. I’ve never seen a movie where often helpful but paternalistic attitudes towards family members with mental health conditions are laid out so obviously. Instead, his brother agrees to help with Bianca’s integration into their community and is seen explaining the difference between a delusion (a wrongly held belief) and a hallucination (a fault in perception). The couple also explains the situation to Lars’ church group, who support him as well. One member feels that its idolatry, and another member points out that four of them have family members who have mental health conditions. That’s another truth not often heard in mainstream movies.
Lars is the main character of the movie, and it’s his story. We learn that his mother died in childbirth, and he’s afraid of having children because of it. That fear amplified into a fear of intimacy and even touch. He explains to his therapist that being touched hurts him physically, like minor frostbite. His older brother left home as soon as possible, leaving Lars with their bereaved father, which makes him feel guilty. All of these facts help explain Lars, but they don’t fix him. He needs to deal with all of it himself, which he does over the course of the movie. His therapist does some aversion therapy for his touch issues (which don’t seem to work at first, but eventually do) and discussing his life and fears help him begin to overcome them. Sometimes the discussions are simple, like the discussion he has with his brother about being an adult, but sometimes, they aren’t simple. He gets into a fight with his sister-in-law when he thinks no one cares about him. “Every person in this town bends over backward to make Bianca feel at home. Why do you think she has so many places to go and so much to do? Huh? Huh? Because of you! Because - all these people - love you!” she yells at the angry Lars. In the end, it takes everyone’s influence, support and honesty to help Lars move into recovery. At the end of the movie, he’s not cured; he’s just dealing with his intimacy issues, which is a realistic place to be.
Lars and The Real Girl is a wonderful little movie that shows the power of community support. It shows what can be done to help someone with a mental health condition simply by supporting them. With some compassion, a bit of understanding and lots of honesty, it’s truly possible to help someone cope with their mental health condition and move into recovery. This kind of story isn’t seen very often, and the power of having a support system around you is often lost in movies about mental health conditions. It’s a shame that it is because Lars and the Real Girl shows how powerful that story can be.
I highly recommend it. Next week, we’ll take a look at Shine, and the other side of family intervention. Have you seen Lars and the Real Girl? What did you think?