The snowy, bleakish start of Lars and the Real Girl doesn’t quite prepare you for the strained winsomeness and warmth that follow. But it does make clear the point of departure for Lars (Ryan Gosling), yearning for what he knows not. He first appears gazing from his window onto a wintry exterior, skittish when he’s approached by his pregnant sister-in-law Karin (Emily Mortimer); as he draws back into shadow, hoping not to be noticed, she announces her intention: “I’m inviting you for breakfast.” Lars demurs and she retreats — to the cozy home she shares with Lars’ brother Gus (Paul Schneider).
Her trip is only a few steps: Lars lives in their garage. More precisely, he lives in the garage of the house where he grew up, Gus having taken on the house on the death of their father, by all accounts a very sad and withdrawn widower. It’s not long before you learn the ostensible reason for this arrangement: years ago, Gus moved out, saving himself and leaving his little brother alone with dad, distraught and resourceless. Gus has felt guilty ever since (“I never thought about him, worries Gus now, “and then the two of us move back here all fat and happy and he moves into the goddamn garage like the family dog.”) And Lars, well, he’s turned out to be strange.
This is the reductive conceit of Lars and the Real Girl, Lars’ representative incongruity: he’s so unlike everyone else that he becomes their cause and sign of sanity. He can pass for merely socially awkward, his job in an office cubicle marking his sympathetic abjection, a point underlined by the fact that a “cute” coworker, Margo (Kelli Garner), has a crush on him. Lars conveniently embodies the lesson the movie means to teach, announced within five minutes, when he and the rest of his teeny community attend church: “In all the world,” goes the preaching, “There are books and book and books of law. But in our world there is really only one law: the lord has told us what to do love one another.”
Lars puts that law to the test when he finds a way to manage his loneliness. Following the suggestion of obnoxious coworker Kurt (Maxwell McCabe-Lokos), he checks out a website proffering custom-designed life-sized sex dolls, each assigned a life story like Cabbage Patch Kids. When a large box is delivered to the garage, Karin is mystified. She and Gus are soon horrified to find that Bianca has arrived. Lars brings her along to dinner at his brother’s, where she sits next to him in fishnet top and miniskirt, her red lips parted in that odd half-seductive, half-menacing guppy-gape typical of such products. Lars, giddy that she’s finally come, explains that Bianca needs a wheelchair, that she’s “from the tropics,” half Brazilian and half Swedish, and that she’ll need to borrow some of Karin’s clothes because her luggage was stolen. A missionary raised by nuns, Lars says, Bianca is currently “on a sabbatical so she can experience the world.”
That would be Lars’ world. With eyebrows raised and glances exchanged, Karin and Gus go along, determining that they should all take Bianca to see Dr. Berman (Patricia Clarkson). Kindly and wise in the way that small-town doctors tend to be in the movies, she advises letting Lars work out whatever trauma he is apparently feeling gradually, to go along with the delusion until he finds his way back (“Chances are, he’s been decompensating for some time”). Gus is beside himself at this news (“We’ve gotta fix him!”), but the doctor assures them that her “special treatment” sessions with Bianca (which will “really” be with Lars) will eventually solve the puzzle.
During the solving, the townspeople rally round Lars, accepting Bianca as a “real girl,” inviting her to parties, volunteering her for community service, bringing her to the hospital to visit with the “bald children.” As Bianca becomes increasingly popular, Lars has to deal with her “independence,” her life apart from him. He worries about his inability to “grow up,” and asks Gus when he knew he became a man. This gives Gus a chance to rearticulate the film’s theme: “It’s not like you’re all one thing or another. There’s still a kid inside you. You grow up when you decide to do right. And not just what’s right for you but what’s right for everybody, even when it hurts.” That is, what Gus did not do, what Lars will do, and what the supportive locals have been doing since Bianca showed up (you might wonder where all these doting folks were as Lars was being raised by his damaged dad).
As it celebrates the healing powers of quirk (especially the collective sort), Craig Gillespie’s movie (written by Nancy Oliver) is premised on some tedious and seemingly comforting truisms concerning the unfathomable mysteries of women and pregnancy, in connection with the ceaseless rhythms of birth-and-death. The film is very careful not to make Lars at all kinky or sexed: he doesn’t put Bianca to the use for which she has been designed (one uncharitable young male observer puts it this way: “He’s in love with that slutty hunk of silicone”). But it also doesn’t invite you inside his hermetic sensibility. Rather, it watches him along with Gus, Karin, and the good doctor, all revealing their own vulnerabilities and desires as they cater to his.
It’s no surprise that Bianca is a vehicle for Lars’ integration. It is disheartening that she must follow a typical plot route in order to serve this function, and to a lesser extent, that the film indulges in predictable montagey goo to display Lars’ route toward that human girl, Margo. Still, the film offers small pleasures, apart from his standard maternity and abandonment anxieties (most having to do with Gosling’s subtle performance). When Lars sees Margo’s upset that her office-ornament teddy bear has been hung in a noose by Kurt, he matter of factly performs mouth-to-mouth. As she watches him, glowing with appreciation, all that look-how-quirky doll business is both accentuated and rejected. It’s not precisely redemption — the movie is all over that in much more obvious ways — but it is sweet and affecting.