It takes a village to raise a delusion
BY JASON BLAIR
LARS AND THE REAL GIRL: Directed by Craig Gillespie. Written by Nancy Oliver. Cinematography, Adam Kimmel. Music, David Tom. Starring Ryan Gosling, Emily Mortimer, Paul Schneider, Kelli Garner and Patricia Clarkson. MGM, 2007. PG-13. 106 minutes.
During the final season of Six Feet Under, the occasionally frustrating, ultimately uplifting drama about family, forgiveness and life after death, I watched an episode I still think about today. Entitled “Ecotone,” a reference to the boundary between two environments, it reveals the final dreams of a comatose Nate Fisher (Peter Krause). In the last dream, after an exuberant road trip to the beach, Nate runs wildly into the surf while his brother David, who appears to be having the same dream, stands frightened on the shore. In the hospital room, only one brother wakes up. If you followed the show, the sense of loss was physical; it was an event both inexplicable and necessary to conclude the series. The writer of that episode, Nancy Oliver, has now written her first film, Lars and the Real Girl, a comedy that makes the above scenes feel quaint by comparison.
Like Six Feet Under, Lars and the Real Girl isn’t for everyone. After all, it’s about a boy in love with a sex doll in rural, heterogeneous Wisconsin. (Imagine a blow-up doll with the, well, stiffness of a mannequin.) But this isn’t a film about the thwartedness and bewilderment of small-town life, where being different, in the paranoid view Hollywood favors, can easily get you killed. Instead, director Craig Gillespie presents Lars as a tender fable about community and the importance of valuing our differences. It’s a message we’ve been taught hundreds, if not thousands of times, from the stories of Aesop to films like Mask and Radio. But what elevates Lars above similar fare is the way Ryan Gosling, playing Lars somewhere along the autism spectrum, manages to convey kindness and affection but also loneliness and terror, often in rapid succession. Since nothing terrifies him more than being touched, his doll “Bianca” is a fitting solution.
Films such as this one need a sage or guide, a wise elder to douse the flames of hysteria. In Lars, that person is Dr. Dagmar, played with sadness and calm by the masterful Patricia Clarkson. It’s Dagmar who creates a safe place for Lars to play out his delusion. But here, Lars avoids the familiar: The townspeople accept Bianca from the get-go, creating a life for Bianca that Lars never could, such as electing her to the school board. It’s only Gus (Paul Schneider), Lars’ older brother, who detests the “big plastic thing” (although he actually just detests, and blames, himself). Gus’ reaction is, “We gotta fix him!” while his wife Karin (a touching Emily Mortimer) wonders whether Lars might not have the better deal.
The film maintains with tremendous confidence a delicate balance between morality tale and offbeat comedy. In addition to adjusting to Bianca’s arrival, I had to adjust to Gus’ reactions to Bianca, which I felt I might tire from easily. But Gus, like everyone, finds a way to accept Bianca, until Lars must choose between fantasy and reality. Lars could easily have faltered as Bianca’s status changes, but instead I found the last act the most enjoyable of the film. That old cliché that goes “I laughed, I cried…”? I did both, simultaneously, for the only time I can remember. If for no other reason, see Lars and the Real Girl for Gosling, who is fast becoming the most interesting actor working today. If Gosling can make you believe in his love for Bianca, there’s not much he cannot do.
Lars and the Real Girl is now playing at VRC Stadium 15.