At its lightest moments Lars and the Real Girl is like a Frank Capra film. Similar to George Bailey in It’s a wonderful life, Lars – played by Ryan Gosling – is a sophisticated and well-liked member of the community who struggles to find his place within it. Gosling’s characterisation of Lars; quiet, reclusive and awkward, may be a much more played down version of James Stewarts “Aw Shucks” charm but he certainly has the same attraction. In the film every woman wants to mother him, attracted to his infantile innocence and bashful charm. Sixty years on from Stewart’s domination of the studio output Lars and the Real Girl seems an unlikely film to emerge from an independent studio. At first glance it seems to be clinging on to the idyll of small town America and Judaeo-Christian morals but in fact it is a complex, moving and often successful exploration into the loneliness of solitary existence.
Lars lives alone in a small house at the end of his brother’s driveway, works in an office cubicle and goes to church. Apart from that there is little else to his daily routine and for the first quarter of the film he barely communicates with any body else, despite the persistent efforts of his cute sister in law (Emily Mortimer). Lars’s introverted life rather strangely leads him to order a top of the range life-size doll named Bianca who becomes his artificial girlfriend. The film adheres to its family values by removing the perversion that is commonly associated to cheap female imitations and instead tries to place innocence on Lars and Bianca. The surrounding issue is insinuated by the curves and dress of Bianca when she arrives in her box or the occasional suggestive male character. But Lars is a devout Christian, whose abstinence eliminates all impure thoughts one might have towards Bianca, and he covers her in a shapeless big knit jumper.
He continues to dress, feed, and eventually falls in love with Bianca in a series of amusing and peculiar scenes. But problems arise when Bianca begins to develop her own opinions, which are often contested but still voiced by Lars. The catalyst of this change is Margo, Lars’s co-worker, who offers him the chance to have a normal relationship with her.
Though the whimsy of this film sways towards the comic, the predominant tone is cloaked in a slow sadness that puts Lars’s persisting loneliness on par with the humour. The film is persistently tense, as if waiting for some external menace to come disrupt the harmony. In one particularly tense moment Lars takes Bianca to a friend’s birthday party. The scene is carried out through a series of short cuts between them and the silent and somewhat awkward onlookers of the party. What makes this scene so poignant is the fact that despite Bianca being fake, the discomfort of the party would have been the same should Lars have turned up alone. Bianca, with her big breasts, eastern European appearance and wheelchair,is just an extension of Lars social-awkwardness and difference to those in the community around him. When Lars and Bianca drive home he begins to cry, the audience recognises that it is not an external menace that haunts the film, but a creation of Lars’s imagination. Now Lars is beginning to imagine Bianca is disinterested in him.
The problem is whilst most of the characters are willing to go along with Lars’ delusions, be it out of familial obligation, pity or even pleasure, are the audience willing to be as patient? Patricia Clarkson’s character revolves around a repetitive and dragging exploration into Lars’ psychology. While interesting at first, it later just seems to slow the plot. The forced psycho-analysis seems to detract from the subtly developed character Ryan Gosling has created. It also shouts the obvious: Lars, like a lonely child, is seeking refuge and friendship in the imaginary. Bianca is no different to a worn blanket or a well-loved teddy bear. As a result the film works best when we are left alone in the company of Lars and Bianca with him fussing over her, explaining his self-doubts and troubles, asking unanswered questions and answering unasked ones. In these lengthy, dark and often static shots where the camera lingers in Lars’ pokey garage house or beside an icy lake without music or many edits, we are invited in to Lars’ most private meditations. This is cinema at its most lonely, like Tom Hanks talking to a volleyball in Castaway or an imaginary six-foot rabbit accompanying James Stewart in Harvey. As a result, moments of Lars and the Real Girl are truly moving and its protagonist deserves the same amount of patience from the audience as he is given from the townsfolk of the film.