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Lars and the Real Girl

Craig Gillespie's Lars and the Real Girl, written by Nancy Oliver, must have been difficult to try to capture in a trailer. The result that I saw went for the goof angle and was hard to read. There were several shots of nonplussed Midwesterners trying to cope with being asked to greet an inflatable doll as if it were a young man's sweetheart, but there was also the suggestion that this was a "sensitive" film. As indeed it is. Now that I've seen Lars and the Real Girl, I can't say that I have any bright ideas for grabbing the gist of it in less than a minute's time. This may be one of those you-had-to-be-there movies. If that sounds like a pallid promo, allow me to insist that you see this picture, at least on DVD.

We begin, on a meta note, with the politics: the Wall Street Journal loved this movie, and the New York Times was pretty chilly about it. On the basis of these reviews alone, I expected to see a film in which the solid values of the heartland were extolled in the teeth of cosmopolitan mockery. This would be a family-values special. It is in fact nothing of the kind. It is not even particularly American. The solidarity and beneficence of the townsmen in Lars are remarkable for their sophistication and worldliness. The people pull together, to help one of their own who happens to be in a very odd predicament, and their help is effective. If the movie were set anywhere else, critics like Manohla Dargis (the film's Times reviewer) might very well have praised it as a rebuke to unthinking American conformism.

Because Lars and the Single Girl does not explain how Lars Lindstrom (Ryan Gosling) came to reach the age of twenty-five or thirty with the capacity to hold down a cubicle job but a strong aversion to unnecessary social contact, don't expect me to. Is he just shy? Has he been traumatized? We learn that his mother died when he was born, but that can't be the explanation. We spend roughly the first twenty minutes wondering  how we're supposed to understand this character, or, rather, trying to figure out just how disturbed he is, and whether the disturbance will lead to violence or romantic comedy. Bianca, the inflatable doll, does not take long to make its first appearance. Lars treats Bianca as if "she" were real, and the desperation that peeps out from behind his pseudo-debonair manner - brilliantly enacted by Mr Gosling - obliges the people who love him to go along with his delusion. When the town doctor tells his brother and sister-in-law that Lars suffers from a delusion that, much to the disappointment of the brother (Paul Schneider), is not serious enough to warrant hospitalization, we realize that we're watching a "problem" movie. But everything about the production, from the screenplay to the casting to the cinematography, distinguishes Lars and the Real Girl from made-for-TV fare.

There are five principal performances, and without any one of them the film might have fallen flat, but the Oscar ought to go to Patricia Clarkson for her supporting role as Dagmar, the doctor. Ms Clarkson's Dagmar is just uncertain enough, just distracted enough, to overcome the too-good-to-be-true liabilities of the part. Dagmar is neither happy nor confident, but she is watchful, and her regard for Lars ought to be mandatory training-film fare in medical schools. She subscribes to the theory, which may or may not be diagnostically sound, that Lars's delusion that Bianca is a real woman must be allowed to work itself out. This means nothing less than forestalling any resistance on the part of friends and neighbors. When Bianca is taken to an office party, all the guests and their dates have been warned by an interoffice memo, and they all prove to be game. There are a few raised eyebrows, but no snickers. By this point, the movie is no longer offering scenes that might be snipped for a funny trailer. We find ourselves looking forward to visits to the doctor's office, because that's where this film has become challenging.

Whether Lars would eventually have outgrown his delusion on his own is not explored. Half-consciously, it seems, the people of the town - particularly its middle-aged women - develop a strange but effective homeopathic cure. They welcome Bianca with open arms. They appoint her to the school board. They arrange for her to read to children at the hospital. When she "gets sick," they send an ambulance, with medics and policemen to bring her to the hospital. In another movie, they might have taken Lars to jail, but the whole point of this movie is that they don't do that. So completely has the town entered into Lars's problem that Dagmar actually has to remind Karin, Lars's sister-in-law (Emily Mortimer), that it was Lars himself who "discovered" Bianca "unconscious" in bed. "She" is sick because Lars is ready to let go of her. Instead of wasting his energy fighting opposition to his preposterous claims on behalf of Bianca, Lars has been allowed to discover that, as long as your partner's going to have her own life in the community, she might as well be a real human being.

The real human being - the real girl - who has been standing there all along, a girl called Margo, is quite wonderfully played by Kelli Garner. In a remarkable performance, Ms Garner proves herself capable of the tempestuous ambivalence that registers on Margo's face whenever Lars confides in her, as he does ever more frequently, about his life - and problems - with Bianca. When Lars is looking at her, Margo is all sunny accommodation, but when he looks away, her jaw begins to work almost treacherously. If Dagmar knows only that it's going to be difficult for Lars to overcome his delusion, Margo gives us a full measure of the difficulty of waiting for him to do so.

Shot in what looks to be the northern Midwest during a bleak seasonal stretch from late autumn to early spring, Lars and the Real Girl takes Lars's hometown at face value. The ironic disdain that pervades most Hollywood portrayals of small-town American life (outside of the South, that is) is completely absent here. At the same time, there is not the faintest romanticizing touch. Lars lives in a hard part of the world, even if farming has yielded to computing, and it is unlikely that anyone not born there would choose to live there. But anyone who did so might be surprised by the reach of the welcome. (November 2007)

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