Why do children play with dolls? One reason is that they like to make up stories and act them out. Dolls serve as permissible figures that allow children to become comfortable with who they, and others, are and to explore what this humanity might mean in an attempt to figure out how to inhabit it. They have not yet learned to hide their imaginations in some secret pocket or channel their speculative natures into a grown-up medium that could prove lucrative in the future such as writing novels or painting. Dolls are simply used for play and promise no other endgame.
Enter “Lars and the Real Girl.” The story begins when we meet one man packed full of neuroses – not by any fault of his own – and his adult doll. Lar’s mother died while giving birth to him, and his father presumably withdrew, as implied by his older brother, Gus, who notes that dad was “too sad.” On their first visit to Dr. Dagmar’s office, Gus unwittingly determines exactly why Lars is suddenly “delusional” when he proclaims that the only things that have changed in the past year are that “Karin is pregnant and Lars has gone crazy!” We later learn that Karin’s pregnancy frightens Lars immensely, and the appearance of a new woman at work who seems to be interested in him probably compounds the situation. Life is changing around the protagonist, who, not-so-incidentally, cannot tolerate being touched. It is also becoming clear that manhood is expected of him — and that, increasingly, he expects it of himself. So we reach a breaking point: Bianca, a blow up sex doll debuts in the Lindstrom’s life as Lars’ new girlfriend.
When I first heard about this film, I thought it would be yet another cheap attempt at a humorous “dude” film that uses a sex prop for laughs. With the odds stacked against them, all five main actors do genius work in overcoming the obvious joke by treating the object sex doll as an extension of, indeed, as a surrogate Lars. Lars allows himself to be psychologically seduced into speaking of his own issues to the doctor as though he were discussing Bianca’s life and concerns. And through a series of caring acts, friends and family finally give Lars the chance to become a real person. He is made to feel safe and loved in a world that neglected the boy whose mother died at his birth. I imagine there are a few young men out there who have suffered from similar emotional neglect common to the rearing process of “turning boys into men.” This film should certainly resonate with them and the rest of us who harbor at least one bone of empathy. It is Ryan Gosling who truly delivers us a Lars we begin to understand, a man who is not weak or truly crazy but copes using the only tools he likely developed as an “independent” child. Gosling’s character is, additionally, kind and generous to his doll and his friends alike, even while feeling frustrated and conflicted over his own evolution as a person and all that that requires. Incidentally, the filmmaker weaves some great double entendres through a lovely scene involving a teddy bear, another when Bianca doubles as a “live” mannequin, and at the end when the real girl notes that “there will never be anyone like her,” which spins out at least four different meanings at once.
However idealistic, this film reminds us that people still commit acts of kindness in the “real” world despite what the nightly news would have us believe. They bring over casseroles and “sit” when tragedy strikes, they have been known to forgive seemingly inexplicable weirdnesses, and they even give up their own pride of appearance to help someone who may or may not successfully work through whatever emotional crisis has befallen them. I realize the likelihood of an entire town enabling Lars’ delusion as a source of healing is nearly nonexistent; however, I don’t imagine that the director and screenwriter are delusional in depicting such optimism. To ask if they intended a realistic situation would be to ask if all cinema, and every narrative, is supposed to merely mirror what’s actually happening in the world. The fact that we get a happy ending is the transparent answer to such queries and does not detract from the event of the film and its implications for people who suffer and actually receive help and support. If anything, “Lars and the Real Girl” is subtly and encouragingly prescriptive. If you want real outcomes and reactions to people who struggle with long-term emotional issues and some of what that entails, rent a prison documentary. But if you want to avoid one more “he shot the school up with guns” story for an evening, try something as breathtaking as Lars, who quietly asks for help and, in the end, gets much more than a real girl.
Amy King is the recipient of the 2015 Winner of the Women’s National Book Association (WNBA) Award. Her latest collection, The Missing Museum, is a winner of the 2015 Tarpaulin Sky Book Prize. She serves on the executive board of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts and is co-editing with Heidi Lynn Staples the anthology Big Energy Poets of the Anthropocene: When Ecopoets Think Climate Change. She also co-edited the anthology Bettering American Poetry 2015 and is a professor of creative writing at SUNY Nassau Community College.