Lars And The Real Girl
“When I was a child, I spake as a child, I felt as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man I put away childish things.”
So there’s this guy, see, and he has a blow-up doll for a girlfriend… That probably sounds like either the set-up for a dirty joke, or the premise of one of those mindless 80’s teen sex comedies. But Lars And The Real Girl is neither a tasteless punch-line nor Porky’s Revisited. What it is, is a deceptively salacious fable with the sweetest, most innocent of centres.
Lars Lindstrom (Ryan Gosling) is a twentysomething small-towner so pathologically shy and withdrawn that he can barely stand to be touched or spoken to. He lives a loner’s existence in his brother Gus’s(Paul Schneider) garage, and consistently avoids his concerned sister-in-law Karin’s (Emily Mortimer) efforts to draw him out of his shell. When a porn connoisseur co-worker tells him about a website where one can order anatomically correct silicone sex dolls online, Lars gets himself a ‘Real Girl’ and brings her home. His family is flabbergasted, but for unexpected reasons, for Lars does not intend to use the doll for its presumed purpose; rather, he introduces ‘Bianca’ as his paraplegic, part-Brazilian, part-Danish girlfriend who is even more painfully shy than he is (thus explaining why he has to speak for her). Kindly psychologist Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson) advises Gus and Karin that for Lars’ well-being, it is better that they play along with his delusion, for, among other things, it is only around and because of Bianca that he displays any skills of social interaction. They do so, with some apprehension, and gradually, their close-knit community follows suit, not only stepping nonchalantly around the bewildering nature of the issue, but going many steps further, adopting Bianca as one of their own and making her a cherished member of their circle. Meanwhile, homely Margo (Kelli Garner) attempts to befriend Lars when Bianca’s social calendar starts to fill up…
With its initial set-up being what it is, you can be forgiven for thinking that the script of Lars And The Real Girl will inevitably veer off into the realm of crass fetish jokes. But rest assured, this is not that kind of film. In fact, it is a minor miracle how deftly the film avoids the gaping traps of smutty mockery into which it could’ve easily stepped and fallen flat on its face. Writer Nancy Oliver and debutant director Craig Gillespie have together crafted a gentle (yet still potent) little tale that refuses to go for the obvious gags and dares to show heart in a time in global cinema when it just ain’t cool to do so. The scene where Dagmar attempts to calculate just what degree of physical contact Lars can endure, is laugh-out-loud funny, but also incredibly poignant. Indeed, one of the reasons why Lars probably feels so comfortable with Bianca is because she doesn’t/can’t ‘really’ touch him. At the same time, what we are dealing with here is a work that questions the meaning of ‘real’ interaction/relationships as opposed to artificial ones (hello, facebook-ers). It is not only Lars who undergoes a transformation after Bianca comes to town, but his whole community. And, as Lars points out when a churchgoer gives Bianca plastic flowers, they’ll last forever because they’re not real.
Some might argue that Lars And The Real Girl needed to be edgier, darker, something with more bite. That would be fair were the film aiming to be a piece of social satire. It is not. It is really a tender and warmly funny treatise on loneliness and the notion of disconnect, and, ultimately, acceptance of human frailty. Its strongest weapon is its absolute and unflinching sympathy for its protagonist and the sincerity with which this is depicted. So much so, that when the film arrives at its quite unexpected denouement, it is surprisingly moving.
There are many wonderful performances on display here – Mortimer, Schneider, Clarkson, Garner, as well as the other bit players, are all splendid – but at the heart of the film is Ryan Gosling’s quietly intriguing turn as the quixotic Lars. The character that he essays is an abundantly tricky one, and a lesser actor could have easily fallen into caricature or turned Lars into an over-earnest idiot-savant who is too opaque to be relatable. But Gosling doesn’t fall into the trap of playing his character’s condition as cloying, cinematic affliction. Instead, he subtly guides us into Lars’ internal universe with only hints of his guileless quirkiness: he is in this world, but not of it. Gosling doesn’t merely play Lars, he is Lars, and it’s no less than a scandal that his sublime performance was overlooked at the Oscars this year. Maybe he is destined to be the John Cusack of his generation: perhaps not a major Hollywood player, but a performer of immense conviction and simmering power who also exudes a certain off-beat sensuality that makes him an eminently watchable presence.