By JANE WILSON, Special To The Bulletin | Published October 25, 2007
In “Lars and the Real Girl,” director Craig Gillespie takes an outlandish premise and, with a realistic tone and outstanding performances, creates a heartwarming movie that demonstrates the importance of love, connection and community.
The Lars of the title is a reclusive young man living in a small Midwestern town. Despite the efforts of his brother and sister-in-law, Gus and Karin, and the cute new girl at work, Lars steadfastly refuses to socialize, until his friend Bianca comes to visit. The only problem is that Bianca is actually a life-size doll Lars has ordered from the Internet—and Lars believes she is real.
Understandably troubled by his behavior, Gus and Karin take him to see the town doctor, who convinces them that, as long as it makes Lars happy, they should go along with the delusion, while she tries to figure out why he needs the doll. Before long, Bianca is integrated into the social life of the town; she attends parties, volunteers at the hospital, even serves on the school board. As a result, Lars also becomes closer to the community that surrounds him.
In addition, the townspeople come to love the doll, too. Although much of the humor of the film comes from the absurdity of the situation, it is genuinely touching to see how she is integrated into the community and how people learn to open up their hearts and minds to the unusual.
When Bianca first appears on the scene, Gus’ first reaction is panic—he is worried about his younger brother, of course, but he is also worried about what people will think. The community, however, comes through admirably. Gus and Karin first meet with a few members of the church to explain what is going on. Despite having a few reservations, these community leaders agree to go along with the charade. Eventually, the town overwhelmingly accepts Bianca, and this, as Karin explains to Lars, is a testament to what they think of him. They accept the situation because they are trying to help him. They love him and want to do what is best for the young man.
In addition to positive community values, religion is presented in a very positive light in the film. Lars—and Bianca—are regular churchgoers, and the people in the church are extremely supportive of Lars’ situation.
In spite of the admittedly bizarre scenario, “Lars and the Real Girl” is grounded in realistic details, and this makes the unusual subject matter seem believable. From the car Lars drives to Karin’s home décor to the cubicle Lars inhabits at work, the details of a simple, normal life are expertly used to highlight Lars’ story.
One of the key points of the story is the assistance Lars gets from the family doctor, Dagmar, played by Patricia Clarkson. Dagmar gently tries to get Lars to open up about himself, trying to understand why he maintains his unusual delusion. What she learns reveals a man in distress, so cut off from human contact that it physically hurts him. He blossoms, though, as he learns to interact with other people, a skill Bianca makes possible.
Ryan Gosling is wonderful as Lars; his discomfort is almost uncomfortable to watch at the beginning of the film, as he tries to avoid any kind of human connection. By the end of the movie, however, he is a changed man, capable of feeling a whole range of emotions, and sharing these emotions with others. Gosling truly makes this transformation believable onscreen.
Supporting him, Patricia Clarkson is perfect as the wise Dagmar, trying to help but never going too far. Emily Mortimer and Paul Schneider are also excellent as Karin and Gus. Schneider, especially, delivers a noteworthy performance as a character who overcomes his initial embarrassment to learn to help his brother. It is touching to see their relationship deepen and grow. Finally, Kelli Garner is also a welcome addition to the cast, both sweet and goofy as the girl who admires Lars from afar.
It might be easy to be put off by the description of the plot of “Lars and the Real Girl.” Don’t be—although it may sound a bit strange, if you miss this movie, you will be missing one of the sweetest, funniest, most heartwarming films to come along in a while.
Jane Wilson, a local writer and movie enthusiast, holds a doctorate in English from the University of Georgia. She is a parishioner at St. Pius X Church, Conyers.