Reel Review: Lars And The Real Girl - Bishakha Datta

I was lazily surfing television channels one evening, pausing here, flickering there. At some point, I broke into a movie that had already begun. I thought I’d watch it for a while, then move on. An hour later, I was still glued to the screen, riveted by a unique relationship between an adult man and an adult doll – orLars and the ‘Real Girl’.

In this independent American film directed by Craig Gillespie, Lars Lindstrom is a young man who appears dysfunctional in his relationships, or lack of them – he finds it difficult to interact with or relate to his family, his colleagues, or his fellow parishioners in the church in his small town. His pregnant sister-in-law’s persistent attempts to lure him into a family meal are usually rebuffed, and on the rare occasions he accepts, their conversation is stilted. And he experiences severe pain when touched, even lightly.

Enter Bianca. When this shy young man announces that Bianca is coming to visit him, his family – brother Gus and sister-in-law Karin – is thrilled. He’s never ever had someone visit him, let alone a woman. The excitement lasts until they meet Bianca – a life-size anatomically-correct doll who Ryan ordered off the Internet and has given a ‘real’ identity as a wheelchair-bound missionary of Brazilian and Danish descent. Now they don’t know what to do. Should they pretend she’s real and play along with Lars’ delusion? Or should they just get Lars to face reality?

As Gus and Karin try to deal with their dilemma, a psychologist advises them to treat Bianca as a real woman. It’s not schizophrenia or a hallucination, she tells them. It’s a delusion. Meanwhile, freed up from the pressure to interact by a non-interactive relationship with a doll, Lars begins to introduce Bianca as his girlfriend to his coworkers and various townspeople. Aware of the situation, everyone reacts to the doll as if she were real, and Bianca soon finds herself involved in volunteer programs, getting a makeover from the local beautician, and working parttime as a model in a clothing store. Due to their acceptance of Bianca, Lars soon finds himself interacting more with people. And the film goes on, but I’m not telling you where it ends.

In 2007, Lars and the Real Girl won one Oscar nomination and numerous other awards in the United States where it was commercially released. Ryan Gosling expectedly – and deservedly – won several of these for his tour de performance as Lars. Gosling is to Lars what Sean Penn is to Harvey Milk in Milk: he defines the role. He takes over the character and makes it his own. He is Lars. Nancy Oliver picked up a bunch of awards for Best Original Screenplay, while Craig Gillespie was voted Most Promising Filmmaker by the Chicago Film Critics Association. This was his first feature film.

It’s one thing to win a bunch of awards. It’s quite another to be a stand-out film. Lars and the Real Girl stands out for many reasons. To begin with, the concept of the blow-up doll. “I had a weird job where I had to deal with a lot of websites and a lot of lonely guys,” screenwriter Nancy Oliver told the independent film site, indieLondon in an interview. “The dolls advertised were so bizarre they stuck in my head, because you can totally see the reason for them. How many people do you know who can’t operate with real human beings?” Related to this is the concept of how one treats mental illness. “It was a ‘what if?’ thing,” said Oliver in the same interview. “What if we didn’t treat our mentally ill people like animals? What if we brought kindness and compassion to the table?”

If a treatment ethic of kindness and compassion are the film’s conceptual bulwarks, the treatment of Bianca is itself one of the highlights. Even though she’s a doll, Bianca is treated as ‘real’ – in a screen sense. She’s imagined from the point of view of Lars, who perceives her as real – not from the point of view of the community, which knows she’s unreal. Visually, she’s stunning; she doesn’t look alive as such, but she conforms to the visual standards of the ‘real’ world. So when you see Bianca sitting at the dining table, she looks like one of the diners – even though she can’t eat a thing. When she’s wheeled into a party, she looks like one of the guests – even though she can’t speak to the rest of them. When she comes out of the salon after a perm, you notice her haircut.

The beauty of this treatment also lies in shifting the audience’s gaze – from initially treating her as a plastic doll to increasingly seeing her as real. Lars and the Real Girl allows us to be gently amused for a while, as the town’s initial reaction to Bianca mirrors our own. A doll? But it does not milk this reaction. Instead of developing into a flatout, slapstick comedy, it becomes a whimsical allegory that touches on serious issues related to emotional isolation and the unacknowledged inability to handle personal loss. (Lars withdrew into his shell after the death of his parents). As one viewer posted on the online Internet Movie Database: “If anyone had told me I would one day be crying during a movie about a man and his blow-up doll, I would have called them a liar. But, here I am, going through at least three Kleenex even after the movie is over.”

Not that Lars and… is a weepfest either. Far from it. Directorially, it’s all about deft understatement and delicate direction – why use a sledgehammer when you can use a feather? The quiet still interiors of Lars’ life are mirrored in the stillness of the camerawork and the house’s quiet interiors. Like Lars himself, the movie doesn’t allow itself to be categorized. It’s not a comedy, nor is it emotional enough to be called ‘drama’. It’s light and sweet and kind without being cloying and sentimental. Folded into its layers is some sort of message about openness and acceptance – but it doesn’t preach. Neither does it strike a false note.

If there’s one obvious thing that the script avoids, it’s the sexual thing. Yes, there are scenes with Lars and the Real Girl lying in bed with one another, but no. Somehow, we never see them having sex. Neither is sex alluded to in this relationship, although you can tell that his family initially thinks that’s what he bought the doll for. It’s hard to imagine that Lars never thought about Bianca in a sexual context, but for whatever reason, the film gives this a miss. Was it because sex with a doll would be seen as too sordid – and pull audience identification away from Lars? Who knows? As Manohla Dargis wrote in the New York Times, “The doll has something hiding under her skirt, but we never see Lars playing peekaboo because this is a story about innocence, not sad sacks having their weird way with artificial vaginas.”

Be that as it may. Despite this one shortcoming, Lars and…remains a masterpiece of independent cinema. A turn-of-the- cyber century American epoch, lovingly chronicling 21st century neuroses the way French cinema chronicled the excesses of thebelle époque. In a hundred years of cinema, there’s never been anything quite like Lars and the Real Girl. Don’t miss it.

Bishakha Datta is a non-fiction writer and filmmaker who is currently writing Selling Sex, a book on the lives, realities and struggles of sex workers in Kolkata, India. Her two most recent documentary films are In The Flesh and Taza Khabar. Bishakha is also the executive director of Point of View, a Mumbai-based not-for-profit organization that promotes the points of view of women through media, art and culture.