According to this film, the people of northern Wisconsin are either the most tolerant and kind-hearted people on Earth or are really, really bored.

Lars is the type of film that had to tread a thin line to be successful. It’s a film about a man who orders a sex doll to be his girlfriend; for most of Hollywood the urge for crassness would be too hard to ignore. But it also needed to stay away from being too heavy, too schmaltzy, too gimmicky. I think it succeeded fairly well.

Ryan Gosling did not get an Oscar nomination for his work here, but he did get a Golden Globe nod. He was a contender though, and he truly makes this film. His performance is restrained, true, and compelling. The character of Lars has to spot on for this film to work well and Gosling nails it. It’s too bad Oscar eluded him this year but he must have been one of the last one or two contenders cut. I loved him here.

When we first meet Lars he’s utterly socially incompetent, unable to make normal conversation with his co-workers, fellow churchgoers, or even his brother and sister-in-law. So Lars does what any normal social deviant would do and orders a sex doll off the internet, names it Bianca, and treats it like his girlfriend. The neat thing is that the film doesn’t treat this as a move of desperation for a pitiful figure but it instead comes off as a proactive and even promising step for the sheltered man, like he’s making a gutsy move to improve his life. Lars may be a messed up guy but the film never mocks him or wallows in his problems.

The townsfolk decide, with a little prodding from the town psychologist, to treat Bianca as a real person. Before long Bianca has a richer social life than Lars. I was a little concerned with how far all these people were willing to bend over backwards to accommodate Lars’s delusions. Everyone is so overwhelmingly happy to help that the realism slips a little. The most negativity we get is from Lars’s skeptical brother, Gus, and a gawking kid. I refuse to believe even friendly Wisconsin towns are that nice and an episode or two of some jerk blowing the illusion or making fun of Lars may have made sense.

Of course, that may have hurt the light-hearted tone as well. Or, on the other hand, forced a cliched ending. Lars’s fantasies play out to their conclusions, with Bianca’s death, which is an interesting ending compared to an obvious solution wherein something allows Lars to see the truth in some sort of big, dramatic moment.

I should also mention that the movie is also very funny. Nancy Oliver grabbed an Original Screenplay Oscar nomination for her work and it’s well deserved. The characters feel fleshed out and multi-dimensional, their actions and words make sense, and the dialogue is light and funny without straying into the territory of a cast of precious, one-note supporting players saying precious things. Besides Lars I felt like I really got to know a number of other characters, and the town’s character as a whole for that matter.

I’m also a huge fan of the work from Paul Schneider and Emily Mortimer as Gus and Karin, Lars’s brother and sister-in-law. Gus is privately skeptical that going along with Lars’s fantasies will help him but defends his brother in public. He’s a man whose skepticism is tempered by the clear love he has for Lars and the guilt he feels for being absent during his childhood and these competing emotions are always apparent on Schneider’s face. Karin has always taken a more proactive approach towards drawing Lars from his shell and is instrumental in bringing first Gus and then the rest of the town into the plan to play along with the Bianca fantasy. Mortimer plays off Gosling very well and has several emotional, dramatic scenes that come off quite powerfully and realistically. While interacting with Lars, her constant wide smile and the occasionally confused dart of the eyes say so much. The Supporting Actress field was fairly strong this year but Mortimer’s performances is one of the year’s best.

Lars and the Real Girl has a lot going for it, but throughout I had a nagging suspicion that the whole premise was too flawed. My hunch is that this disorder in real life would not be treated with loved ones playing along but instead with intense therapy, medication, and maybe institutionalization. This is the second movie this year, after Reign Over Me, that asks us to revel in a mentally ill character’s eccentricities when they probably really need serious help. Lars pulls it off much better than Reign, which was a schmaltzy mess, but I can’t help but think that it falls into some of the same traps. At least Lars is generally lovable while the sick character in Reign is more of a huge jerk. I’d be very curious to hear a psychologist’s take on these two films. My mom is a clinical psychologist, perhaps we should have a double feature (she loved A Beautiful Mind for its portrayal of schizophrenia). Speaking of clinical psychology, what’s the deal with movie shrinks being so manipulative? Invariably the patient does not want to talk but the doctor plays mind games to get them to open up. I don’t think counseling works like that in real life, but if it does I wonder how many mind games my mom has played on me over the years…

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