Sunday, March 3, 2013

Worth Watching: Lars and the Real Girl (2007)

Title: Lars and the Real Girl
Director: Craig Gillespie
Language: English
Rating: PG-13

In Lars and the Real Girl, Lars Lindstrom (Ryan Gosling) buys a sex doll but doesn't use it for sex. The doll, named Bianca, is fully clothed and gets treated with care. Lars courts her chastely, takes her around town, and introduces her to people as if she's real; he even gives her an interesting back story. Instead of functioning as a sex toy, the doll becomes his way of working through a deep-seated inability to connect with real people.

Lars real girl.jpg
From Wikipedia, Fair use, Link

I can hear some of you going, "Okkkaaaay..." and backing away slowly. So let me give you some background on Lars. His mother died giving birth to him. He grew up with a distant father and with an older brother, Gus (Paul Schneider), who left home as soon as he could. Now Gus is married to the warm and lovely Karin (Emily Mortimer), and the two are expecting a child. Lars lives near them physically, but keeps his distance emotionally. Though he can't articulate his fears, he is deeply afraid of people's unpredictability and mortality. He also doesn't respond well to physical touch.

How do people react to Lars and Bianca? After some initial hesitation, the townspeople play along with Lars's delusion and let him heal through it. Although Gus's first impulse is to have his younger brother committed to a mental hospital, he's dissuaded from this course of action by my favorite character in the movie, Dr. Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson), who combines cool understanding and warm compassion in her role as the town's medical doctor and psychologist.

Delusions can have their own logic and reveal something real and meaningful about the people experiencing them. And people reveal a lot about themselves in the way they respond to another person's psychological difficulties. Gus's initial desire to have his brother committed stems less from concern than from embarrassment and, more deeply, guilt and personal shame.

Is it realistic, the way the other people in the community come to support Lars and treat Bianca as a town mascot? Such widespread acceptance is rare, but not impossible. Read this article, which discusses the influence of social environment on people's ability to cope with mental illness. Ostracizing and isolating people with psychological problems makes them much worse off, but unfortunately that's what we usually do in our culture. The approach taken in Lars and the Real Girl might be more conducive to healing.

The movie is funny too. It shows the absurdity of the situation, but treats the characters with kindness. I also like how Lars uses a doll to work through his issues, instead of using a real life woman as a personal crutch or savior. He has a love interest in the movie - Margo (Kelli Garner), a colleague at work who seems to like him too, in a shy way. But on some level he realizes, even in the midst of his emotional disconnection, that he's not yet ready for a real relationship with her or with anyone except Bianca. And even Bianca starts to show signs of independence as the movie progresses, proving herself to be less pliant than she appears.