(Quick side note. I promised you all I’m on a streak. Somehow, Netflix sent me 4 instead of my usual 3 DVDs, and they’re all films that I’m very excited to watch/think have the potential to be really good or great. This film was one of them. It was really good. Plus, I just bought Cabin in the Woods on blu-ray. It’s Joss Whedon. How can it not be good? We shall see though. We shall see. I’m loving this blog right now though.)
A lot of films are victims of inaccurate publicity. Brokeback Mountain is so much more than the “gay cowboy” movie. Watchmen had much grander psychological motivations than simply being another action-fueled superhero movie (although it still had plenty of action). Magic Mike was a tragic examination of the death of the American dream and a reverse-look at sexual objectification. It wasn’t just a stripper movie. When I first heard about 2007’s indie “comedy” Lars and the Real Girl, I thought it was going to be a semi-exploitative look at one man’s sexual obsession with a life-sized sex doll. Even Netflix’s description of it makes it seem that way. Thank god that’s not true. It’s a touching and intimate look at loneliness and the self-defense mechanisms we create for ourselves to protect us from the pain and hurt of the real world.
In the frozen reaches of the Dutch Midwest, Lars Lindstrom (Ryan Gosling) is a sad and dejected loner living in the garage of his late parents’ house where his brother Gus (The Assassination of Jesse James‘ Paul Schneider) lives with his wife Karin (Emily Mortimer). He only leaves his garage for church and work, and despite the regular invitations to dinner from his sister-in-law, he spends time with no one. One day at work though, he hears a co-worker talking about life-sized anatomically correct female dolls, and six weeks later, one arrives of his own. He names her Bianca and has deluded himself into thinking she’s a real girl. However, he doesn’t have her for sexual purposes. She’s simply the friend and companion he’s always needed, but his eccentricity has his brother convinced he’s mentally ill, and with the help of local shrink Dr. Dagmar (Pieces of April‘s Patricia Clarkson) as well as the rest of the town, they try to help Lars through this strange patch in his life.
If that plot description seems either vague or boring, fear not. I simply don’t want to ruin the direction the film takes which is one of the most optimistic and hopeful statements on our ability to rally around and help each other in our moments of need that I can think of from modern cinema. That it manages to do so without seeming hopelessly naive speaks to the endearing idealism and hope that permeates throughout the film. And the film moves at its own stately pace, but it’s never dull. For a film that’s characterized as a comedy, it’s never especially funny. That’s alright, ultimately, because it’s an engrossing character study in loneliness and despair while simultaneously looking at those parts of small-town America that we can still cheer for (as opposed to the economic implosions, the bigotry, and the small-mindedness).
Ryan Gosling’s career is one of Hollywood’s most interesting to study. He made a name for himself as having the potential to write his own ticket after starring in one of the definitive chick-flicks of the 2000s, The Notebook. He could have played it safe and made a career as the sensitive and troubled romantic lead. Thank God he didn’t go down that route. Instead, he transformed himself into one of the indie darlings of the aughts, a role he continues to play into this decade. Along with Half Nelson, Lars and the Real Girl is one of Gosling’s most high-profile indie roles, and it’s easy to see why. He never turns Lars into a joke. He’s a sad and lonely boy trapped in a man’s body. And you watch him learn to accept and come to terms with his place in grown-up society over the course of the film as well as work through decades of feelings of abandonment and lost love.
The film was overflowing with great supporting parts as well. Paul Schneider is a terribly underrated character actor. If you need any proof of that, just watch the criminally under-appreciated All the Real Girls with him and Zooey Deschanel. If you’re wondering how you would react if your brother started talking to a life-sized sex doll, it would probably be something like Paul Schneider’s Gus, but he also shows some sensitivity as he wrestles with his guilt of leaving Lars behind when he left for college. Kelli Garner is also charming as Margo, one of Lars’ coworkers who has a serious crush on Lars, but he’s too shy and awkward to even notice her existence. Emily Mortimer is fine (she always is), but she has considerable difficulty suppressing her British accent during many of the most emotional parts of the film. And has there been a role where Patricia Clarkson didn’t shine?
As someone who is shy and occasionally withdrawn (which makes my past political aspirations so weird in retrospect), the parts of this film where it explores Lars’ almost pathological inability to function around other adults was simply awe-inspiring. It’s a story about a man who went far too long (and he’s never formally diagnosed in the film) without getting proper care for a serious case of Social Anxiety Disorder, and it then becomes a tale of how a community rallies around a member who needs it the most in order to help him get better. But any moment in the film where we see Lars physically unable to make emotional or actual physical contact with other people was painful to watch because of how terribly real it all felt. I’m not nearly that shy, but the fear that we’re never going to be able to connect with the others around us is so real, and Ryan Gosling and the script bring that fear to life.
That a film can make you care about the imaginary relationship between a social trainwreck of a man and his life-sized doll girlfriend is a testament to the heart and insight of the script. It’s a small, quiet film (which is shocking considering the subject matter) with a subtle grasp of the fragility of our mental state and our relationships with those around us. It may not speak to some of the largest existential questions that face us as a people but the way it so freshly captures a tiny aspect of our harried time on this planet is sublime. For fans of quirky and ultimately moving indie comedies/dramas/romances (Lars and the Real Girl covers all those bases), this film will leave you sated.
Final Score: B+