It would be so very easy for me to spend this entire piece obliterating this movie on the subject of mental health. This is a full length depiction of the absolute worst ways to react to a man dealing with a delusion. The film is essentially a collection of every bad trope I hate about mental illness really.
That isn’t going to be this essay though. I’ve vented enough in that area and I’m tired of repeating the same message. Yes, you can still love something with severe issues. Yes, movies are a bad way to learn about the brain. I’m hoping you know this.
What I want to go to instead is how I truly feel about this film. This is, bizarre as this might sound, one of my comfort food movies. I put it on and it’s a big bear hug of warmth and light that just makes me feel better. So why is that?
Lars and the Real Girl is, in its way, a fairy tale. It takes place in a very heightened reality. Sure, everything that happens is possible but the characters are all just a bit higher pitched than in reality. The story is just a step too convenient than in reality. The film even has a look closer to a bedtime story than to a serious indie. It’s not a study in the brutality of life but in the mythological goodness of the world.
The film’s story is a simple one. A guy buys a sex doll, pretends it’s a real person, and the people in his town go along with it in an effort to help him deal with the long buried trauma he’s working through in this surreal way. It’s easy to imagine this as a dark, NC-17 thriller but the movie isn’t that. Instead it’s a very sweet, even PG-13 rated film. Lars even makes it explicit he isn’t having sex with the doll, not shocking as the character doesn’t seem remotely capable of sexual impulses.
Lars is a strange, unique character. He’s ostensibly the main character, played by movie star Ryan Gosling, but the film isn’t from his perspective because it can’t be. He’s at a remove from the world. Thus while he’s the film’s fulcrum, he’s not really the protagonist in the sense of the one who changes and drives the plot forward. At the end of the film, he’s only at the starting line of being able to consider changing.
What this movie is about is how the people in his life start to help him for the first time ever. His brother and sister-in-law, played by Paul Schneider and Emily Mortimer, realize for the first time how damaged he is. His town understands and reaches out to him. His coworkers, particularly a wonderfully just a bit off one played by Kelli Garner, change in how they treat him. And yes, Lars does come out of his shell but it’s using this surrogate relationship to do so.
It’s the idea of someone using a delusion as a cry for help that really speaks to me. I don’t know what it is to be severely delusional but I live with the challenge of expressing myself. This is a heightened version of that struggle that really nails it. Lars wants to be heard, wants to tell his family that he’s struggling with unresolved trauma, but doesn’t know how.
So much of this rests on Gosling’s performance and he nails it. Gosling makes Lars a bundle of twitches and half expressed thoughts. You can see at all times what he’s thinking and it hurts. That Gosling is a megastar and impossibly pretty doesn’t dilute his work. He’s one of our broadest actors, able to play anything from the strong silent type in Drive to a hyperverbal slickster in Crazy Stupid Love. Here he captures a troubled but good man and never betrays the character.
The movie also benefits from atmosphere. Director Craig Gillespie has been one of the major journeymen in the industry since this film without much of a voice but he’s really quite skilled here. He lets the film breathe. There are long portions without dialogue that really sell the dreamlike tone. The film makes great use of its small town, winter setting. It’s set far back from “the world” and it’s lovely.
In the end this isn’t a major effort and that’s the point. It’s a fable. It’s not how things are but how we wish they would be and that’s really kind of wonderful. Maybe that’s why I love this film. People with mental illness want to be accepted and loved, not blamed for mass shootings. This isn’t the best film of the year but it’s one of my favorites.
Next week: There Will Be Blood…when I discuss that movie.