Lars and the Real Girl Blows Up Expectations

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Is love only between humans?

The premise seems ripe for exploitation and cheap jokes. Lars Lindstrom is so desperate for human connection that he purchases a life-size doll. Yet, his love for “Bianca” remains remarkably pure. He introduces her as a half-Brazilian, half-Danish missionary on sabbatical. Given her religious convictions, Lars insists they sleep in separate bedrooms. Lying on his back in a tree, Lars sings Nat “King” Cole’s classic song “L-O-V-E” to Bianca with innocence and joy. The entire community is challenged to adopt Lars’ childlike approach to life. The results are both comedic and touching.

Ryan Gosling delivers one of the most original, unaffected performances in years as the damaged Lars. He creates an inspiring portrait of goodness. Too often, onscreen goodness comes off as syrupy, maudlin or easy. Director Craig Gillespie takes all the clichés of relationship films–painful breakups, jealousies, tragedies, but re-humanizes them-through a Real Doll. Lars demonstrates the power of love to heal the most painful memories.

The bemusement of the supporting cast makes this fractured fable work. As Lars’ sister-in-law, Karin, Emily Mortimer practices the art of hospitality with comedic results. She is so desperate to cook for lonely Lars that she literally tackles him. Paul Schneider plays Lars’ brother, Gus, with a mixture of frustration and fear. Gus wonders, “What will people think of his crazy brother?” Yet the question shifts to “How have I contributed to his condition?” Gus and Karin make an appointment (for Bianca!) with Dagmar, the town doctor, played by Patricia Clarkson. Dagmar conveys genuine compassion, engaging in the all-but-forgotten virtue of listening. She challenges Gus and Karin to follow Lars’ lead, treating the doll as a real girl. Dagmar concludes, “Bianca’s in town for a reason.”

Gus and Karin appeal to the local church for support. Perhaps if the priest takes the lead, others will follow in embracing Bianca. Special kudos go to Nancy Beatty as Mrs. Gruner. She answers the haunting question of ‘What would Jesus do?” by putting her faith in action. While the town watches and wonders about Lars’ mental stability, Mrs. Gruner reaches to Bianca (and Lars) with a bouquet of roses. This vision of compassionate community echoes the generous cinematic vision of Frank Capra. It’s a Wonderful Life, even with a blow-up doll for a girlfriend.

Lars and the Real Girl could have been dark, twisted and awful. Instead, it upholds goodness and light. Screenwriter Nancy Oliver practiced her craft on the HBO TV series, “Six Feet Under.” Oliver explains her reasons for writing Lars, “It seemed to me there were a lot movies that were dark, edgy, sarcastic and sometimes mean-spirited. I wanted to write something about compassion and goodness, something that was sincere, because I wasn’t seeing that anywhere.” Like Bianca, Lars and the Real Girl is delivered as an unexpected gift.

As a quiet film, Lars and the Real Girl sneaks up on audiences, building towards a hard-fought, satisfying conclusion. It wrings genuine laughter and honest tears from an absurd situation. In a world of cynical manipulation, Lars and the Real Girl feels authentic, full of lived-religion. From the winter locations to the heartfelt performances through the nuanced script, Lars and the Real Girl restores my faith in the movies. It is a postmodern parable about childlike faith and love. This faith-affirming dramedy contains the rarest of cinematic treasures-emotional honesty. Make a memorable date with Lars (and Bianca!). And rediscover your love for life and community.