This Canadian-American production, written by Nancy Oliver, undoubtedly frightens the more suppressed of us in the audience (mainly me) with its main hook, a man who begins a relationship with a female sex doll, but just like his entire town, most of us leave this film with a very different perspective. There’s an innate somberness to this film that hearkens to the palette and tone of Alexander Payne, and yet Lars and the Real Girl feels surprisingly innocent. The beauty of the film is how an entire community gets behind this one man and truly accepts him for who he is.
Lars Lindstrom as played so impeccably by Ryan Gosling is an isolated, lonely young man who goes to church on Sundays, lives across from his brother and sister-in-law, and avoids the cute girl at work with averted eyes. He’s an Elwood P. Dowd for the modern age. He trades in a disarming personality for an aloofness that conceals a deep well of loneliness and nevertheless shies away from normal everyday human interaction.
His views of sexuality and intimacy have been in many ways twisted up inside of him due to the specters in his past and a modern culture that does not know how to deal with sex by normal means. For Lars, it manifests itself in the form of a doll he buys off the internet. But far from using it to gratify his utmost desires sexually as we would expect, what he really does is project what he truly cares about onto this figure, christened Bianca.
She wears clothes like you and me, holds a nursing degree, lived the life of a missionary, and is constrained to a wheelchair, relaying all her thoughts to Lars and Lars alone. Harvey was an imaginary being whereas Bianca is tangible–in the flesh–sort of.
At first, this situation feels slightly uncomfortable and increasingly strange and in the moments of discovery Lars’s brother (Paul Schneider) and sister-in-law (Emily Mortimer) are beside themselves. What will the town think? He’s crazy. What are they to do?
But the beautiful thing is that they seek counsel from older, wiser people in the community including the local minister and they preach a message of love, accepting Lars for who he is, and helping him through his healing process, whatever that means.
Everyone else only sees the freak, the dysfunction, but they fail to see the dysfunction in their own lives. It’s the ones who realize that–realize that they too have their own problems. They shed their hypocritical point of view and take Lars for who he is, quirks and all. By this point, the film has subverted expectations and the joke’s on us because although some people stop and gawk, the majority of the locals begin to rally around Lars.
He still maintains his delusions as his own insecurities, fears, and the dark recesses of his childhood become more evident. He’s fearful of contact, scared of being close, and it’s these moments that dredge up all the FOO, and he’s forced to deal with it. But that makes way for some intricate conversations, brother to brother and between Lars and the kindly psychologist Dagmar.
It’s when he finally realizes just how much people care, that he’s able to let go. Give up Bianca and engross himself in the real world with a real girl. He doesn’t have to live life scared anymore. The film wins because of its sincerity. It never belittles. Never plays its story like a joke. For that, it deserves our respect as an audience. Even in the moments that it feels utterly absurd, pay it the respect it is due — just like what all these characters give to Bianca and in turn Lars.
What struck me in particular, was the nuance of all the main female characters. When we first meet Karin (Emily Mortimer) she is a generally caring sister-in-law who has such a great capacity to extend grace towards Lars. Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson), although she is a doctor, never becomes didactic–trying to change Lars or alter him– instead allowing him to heal of his own accord. Meanwhile, Mrs. Gruner (Nancy Beatty) is spot on as the Christian lady we all wish we knew. She cuts the holier than thou attitude, covering it with a heavy dose of genuine neighborly love. That speaks more than any amount of sermons or platitudes that can be spouted off as actions invariably speak louder than words.
Finally, Margo (Kelli Garner) is the epitome of the girl who Lars deserves. Sweet, authentic and a faithful friend. When Lars let’s go and concludes the grieving process, she is right by his side ready to live life next to him. She’s a real girl, through and through.