Lars and the Real Girl (2007)

Lars and the Real Girl first published by EyeforFilm

In a small Midwestern town, sweet-natured but painfully introverted Lars Lindstrom (Ryan Gosling) spurns all human contact. He lives in the garage flat rather than having to share space in the house next door with his big brother Gus (Paul Schneider) and Gus’ pregnant wife Karin (Emily Mortimer), and he turns down party invitations from his workmates, or even the shy advances of new girl Margo (Kelli Garner). Then he meets Bianca over the internet, and everything changes. A wheelchair-using, half-Brazilian missionary on a sabbatical to experience the world, Bianca’s unlikely friendship with Lars might just be the solution to all his problems – and although the community is at first wary of this exotic visitor in their midst, they gradually come to embrace her as one of their own.

Bianca, however, is not well, and although Lars accompanies her to regular therapy sessions with wise local doctor Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson), her poor health takes a turn for the worse. And so, just as Lars is starting to come out of himself, he must also learn to say goodbye to the woman he loves the most.

While all this may sound like any number of quirky coming-of-age indies set in small-town America, Craig Gillespie’s Lars and the Real Girl comes with a humdinger of a twist. Bianca, the ‘Real Girl’ of the title, is in fact a RealDoll – a custom-ordered, life-size, anatomically accurate mannequin made of silicone – whom Lars, in a state of delusion precipitated by his anxieties about childbirth, has come to believe is a living, breathing, talking person of flesh and blood. On the advice of Dagmar (who has a degree in psychology), Gus and Karin agree to accept Bianca as real, enlisting co-operation (sometimes ready, sometimes reluctant) from their circle of friends and colleagues.

This, however, is by no means the biggest trick pulled off by the film. For Nancy Oliver’s screenplay is so nuanced, so sensitive, so genuinely caring about all its characters, that, while without question funny at times (and sad at others), Lars and the Real Girl is never mocking, degrading or lewd – a true miracle for a film about one man’s relationship with a sex doll, especially coming in an era of cinema where crude gross-out has become such a predominant form.

On the contrary, Lars and the Real Girl harks back, along with Michel Gondry’s Be Kind Rewind (2008), to the old-fashioned, Capra-esque values of community spirit, neighbourly love and common decency, making Gillespie’s film not only a strangely innocent affair, but also a truly affecting one. At first Lars’ fellow townsfolk merely play along with his delusion, but by the end they have developed genuine affection for blank-faced Bianca and the part that she has come to play in their lives. When, in the end, she leaves (much as she had arrived) in a wooden box, their grief is real enough – and viewers may well find themselves, too, wiping away a tear.

We should not be so surprised at this investment of genuine feelings into a lifeless object. Bianca is, after all, not unlike cinema itself – a flat, unresponsive form that has the near alchemical power to inspire collective fantasy, to elicit heartfelt emotions, and to transform (sometimes permanently) those who encounter her. Bianca – the person as opposed to the synthetic model – may merely be the product of a deluded imagination, but what matters is that Lars believes in her – and so, like the titular invisible rabbit in Henry Koster’s Harvey (1950), she can have an all too real effect on other people’s lives too.

It is difficult to fault Lars and the Real Girl. It ambles along at its own pace, but that is only to get us to empathise fully with its characters (real or otherwise). Every performance in it is perfect. The dialogue always rings true. And like the gradual thawing of winter that it traces, the film will slowly warm your heart. It may be about a man who is pained by any human contact, but it is nonetheless truly touching. How it achieves all this without once feeling mawkish or cloying is a mystery best left inside the box.

© Anton Bitel