“Ryan Gosling. A sex doll. One of the most Christian films I’ve watched in years.” That was how I first had Lars and the Real Girl explained to me by a church student worker while I was at university.
While the film itself is in no way religious, it’s decidedly more moral, compassionate, and wholesome than a film starring a sex doll has any right to be. Craig Gillespie’s (I, Tonya) 2007 dramady is an understated and quiet affair, one which takes an utterly bizarre concept and turns it into something tender, honest, and heart-breaking. In addition to that, it’s one of Ryan Gosling’s best performances.
The film follows Lars (Gosling), a man in his late 20s who is a kind-hearted but lonely soul. Lars gets on with his office job without any fuss, goes to church each Sunday, and isolates himself from his loving but overbearing brother and sister-in-law (Paul Schneider and Emily Mortimer). However, things change when he ‘meets’ Bianca. To everyone around him, Bianca is a life-size sex doll, but to Lars, she is his new girlfriend: a reserved, hospitable wheelchair-bound woman who was previously a missionary, loves kids and volunteers for charity. His unreserved and wholehearted love for her bring out a side of him that his family haven’t seen in years; Lars has a renewed energy and love for life. Following advice from a local psychiatrist (played by the wonderful Patricia Clarkson), Lars’s family and friends indulge his belief that Bianca is real, and she soon becomes a valued member of the community.
As I’ve already said it’s a strange concept, and the film is fully aware of—and unafraid to joke about—this strangeness. Once you lean into the unique nature of the central romance though, the film makes it feel like the most natural thing in the world. A lot of this is down to some really beautiful and fully realised performances from the main cast. Ryan Gosling portrays Lars with a tenderness and innocence that is compelling to watch. This protagonist is completely different to the romantic heroes or comedic roles we often associate the actor with, but he slips into the role so organically.
As his brother and sister-in-law, Schneider and Mortimer react to every strange situation the film puts them in emphatically, helping us as the viewer to know how to relate. They bring both a lightness and humour to this melancholic film, while holding their own in emotional scenes that force them to reckon with Lars’s mental illness. Clarkson is brilliant as always, balancing her authoritative presence with a gentleness in every scene she’s in. Kelli Garner rounds off the main cast perfectly as Lars’s co-worker who develops a crush on him. Hats off to all of them for their ability to act opposite a sex doll and still make her feel like a legitimate scene partner.
While the narrative beats are nothing new, there is something so human and hopeful in Lars and the Real Girl that speaks right to the heart. The film’s portrayal of mental illness is refreshing, mainly because it takes the focus off the character with the mental health issue and their attempts to deal with it, and instead encourages the people around him to understand his reality and love him despite his differences. Nancy Oliver’s thoughtful screenplay poses difficult questions, both to the characters and the viewer. Where have we judged people with mental illnesses? How can we support those around us who are struggling? What does it mean to be a ‘functioning’ adult?
In addition to this, the running theme of community, and particularly the way the film depicts communities coming together to support their own, makes the tale a heart-warming ode to the power of loving your neighbour. It preaches a message of kindness over judgement, and patience with those we don’t understand. In a time that has been defined by social isolation and political opposition, there is no film quite like this one to make you feel wrapped up in human compassion and collective goodwill.
Ultimately, Lars and the Real Girl is a film about how the unlikely things in life can move and change you, and about what it means to grow up and mature. This film itself may be the unlikely thing to move you; it certainly was for me.
Words by Rehana Nurmahi
Lars and the Real Girl is available to rent on Amazon Prime Video
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