I am not quite sure what to think of this film. On one hand, Lars and the Real Girl is a highly original film with a gentle soul and a positive message. On the other hand, it is often frustratingly absurd and illogical. It is a film that is both pleasant and uncomfortable, and it often finds its way into the region of the uncanny. Yet, it is a sweet little film that I think is more of a success than a failure in a few ways, yet it isn’t a particularly easy film, and it can sometimes be a bit disturbing, but not in a surrealist way, rather in a very disconcerting humanitarian way.
Lars Lindstrom (Ryan Gosling) is a socially awkward young man living in Wisconsin. His family tries to connect with him, and many people try and find some kind of connection towards the gentle but shy Lars. While not suffering from any recognizable mental disorder, Lars is very sensitive and distant, and despite the best efforts of so many people, he doesn’t function normally. This is until he discovers a website that sells sex dolls, and he purchases one named Bianca, but rather than use her for the expected purpose, he sees her as a normal, living human being that he becomes close to romantically, helping him fill the void of loneliness that he feels. Despite their initial shock and bewilderment at this situation, Lars’ family, friends and co-workers all go along with it, allowing Lars to believe the delusion that Bianca is a real girl.
Lars and the Real Girl is worthwhile seeking out only for Ryan Gosling’s performance. His performance as Lars is a wonderful little gem. Tragically funny but also despairingly sad, he creates a character that is never a stereotype of socially akward individuals, and he imbues the character with such complexity and deep meaning. Gosling is a very popular actor, and he has so much mainstream appeal – but unlike many other actors that he is superficially compared to, Gosling actually has a very unique acting style that sets him apart from his contemporaries. It is actually very encouraging to see that Gosling is able to be one of the most popular actors working today, but also someone with such deep talents, proving that there is a reason for his success other than his appearance. Lars and the Real Girl is one of his most unsettling roles, but also one of his best. Gosling captures the essence of the isolated and lonely Lars, while never veering into the region of being unlikable or a meek milquetoast. There have been too many times where socially awkward characters are portrayed as sad-sack losers who are to be ridiculed and pitied rather than shown as fully-developed people. Gosling did such a great job at creating Lars as an sympathetic, likable and ultimately sweet but tragic figure. If there was any doubt Gosling is one of the very best actors working today, Lars and the Real Girl is just one of several reasons why he is.
The rest of the cast of Lars and the Real Girl is good, but unremarkable. Emily Mortimer is very good as Lars’ sweet and sympathetic sister-in-law, and she gives a good performance, but suffers from the same ailment that the rest of the cast suffers from – we just don’t care about them in the same way we care about Lars. None of them are outright nasty characters (I actually think the fact that all the characters in the film are so likable and good-hearted is a weakness – there needed to be some conflict to drive the plot forward, even if just a little). Paul Schneider is a talented actor and he deserves quite a breakthrough because he has shown that he is adept at comedy and drama equally well – 2007 saw Schneider in two very different films, this and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, which showcased his unique talents. He is good in Lars and the Real Girl , but not as good as he usually is shown to be. Patricia Clarkson is also in this film, and she is reliable as always, but she doesn’t get much to do here. The supporting cast of Lars and the Real Girl is good, but not as solid as I’d have hoped, mainly because they aren’t developed as Gosling.
There are two primary themes in this film that I believe make this quite a unique film, as it touches on these themes in ways that are highly original and touching, despite the fact that both themes are common in cinema and in life in general. The first is loneliness. I think far too many of us know the feeling of utter despair and loneliness. Lars is a socially awkward man who struggles with the fact that he is an outsider, and the only way he can feel something is by filling the void with Bianca. What this film does that is quite unique is showing that Lars isn’t hopeless – he has people who care about him, he just doesn’t have the ability to realize it. He pines for a true human connection, but he struggles to take the right moves to making friends. This film makes the statement that making friends and meaningful connections with others is not always just a matter of being out there – sometimes it takes a bit more work than just talking to someone to get over that sense of loneliness. It isn’t as easy as just noticing that others care about you – it takes a process, and in the case of Lars, he needed to go through the process of humanizing a novelty item in order for him to grow as a human being.
This idea of loneliness also speaks to the second of the two themes. Mental illness is far too often portrayed in cinema, sometimes brilliantly and sometimes dreadfully. Lars and the Real Girl is a film about mental illness, but a very original one at that. Lars is not someone who has a diagnosed disorder – in fact, this film does make an effort to note that there is nothing clinically wrong with Lars. Yet he does suffer from social anxiety and depression, which are equally as important as diagnosed disorders. For many people, Lars and the Real Girl shows something very real that isn’t shown in media very often – an accurate portrayal of what it is like to suffer from this kind of social anxiety. Far too many representations of depression have shown the sufferers as being harmful, overly-emotional wrecks – and while there isn’t any standard appearance of depression, it is far too easy to view it in just one way. Lars and the Real Girl is one of the few films that shows depression in the most accurate light possible, and it does this in quite a subtle way – it doesn’t display all sufferers of depression as being lonely, sad individuals who are unable to form human connections – rather, it makes the statement that everyone is different, and every fights their battles in their own unique way. Lars is someone who deals with his loneliness in his own special manner, just like how everyone else does. There isn’t just one way to treat mental health, which is why a film like Lars and the Real Girl is so important – by not generalizing mental health, it shows it in the best possible manner – as something that is different for everyone.
Lars and the Real Girl is a very strange film because it is tonally very warped. I am not quite sure how to classify this film, and if pushed to put a label on it, I would say it occupies the features of an entirely new sub-genre that is quite rare – absurdist melodrama. It is a film that seems funny, with a very audacious premise – yet it is a very sad film. It does have a happy ending and a good heart that warms you throughout, but it has the structure of a classic romantic melodrama. I admired this quite a bit, until I realized that it wasn’t intentional, and that this sense of drama wasn’t really building up to anywhere. The final moments of this film are sweet, but the pay-off is expected and unremarkable. Added to this, it is sometimes just a bit too absurd – it felt lazy to just have all the characters be on-board with the idea of treating Bianca like a real person, and some of the extents that this film goes to feel so false and unnecessary – the problem is that it crosses the line between the characters being sympathetic, and rather transforms them into characters that seem to have far too much time on their hands, and seem to be as socially awkward as Lars. This is a film that sometimes loses sight of its own intentions, which I think is its biggest weakness.
In conclusion, I have to say that Lars and the Real Girl is a sweet film. It may not be a great film, but anchored by one of Ryan Gosling’s best performances, and with a very audacious concept, it rises above all the small issues and delivers a genuinely lovely film that has a great heart and wonderful intentions. It is quite a unique film, and even if it does lose its way and become a bit muddled and absurd, it is still a gem of a film, and something highly original and entertaining, and a film that makes some important statements about mental health and anxiety. It is a lovely film that will warm your heart and leave you with a strangely pleasant sense of melancholy.