“Lars and the Real Girl” is a movie you might have missed. Released in 2007, the film stars Ryan Gosling, Emily Mortimer, and Paul Schneider. Gosling plays the lead character in the film, Lars Lindstrom, a peculiar young man who lives in the garage behind the big house that he and his brother Gus inherited when their father died. Lars’ pregnant sister-in-law Karin is persistent in her attempts to include him in their life as a family, repeatedly inviting him to have breakfast or dinner with them. Lars is equally persistent in his efforts to thwart her efforts.
Lars is able to keep his job and goes to work regularly, but he is so socially inept that he finds it difficult to interact with not only his family, but also coworkers or his fellow parishioners at the Lutheran church he regularly attends.
Along the way we learn that Lars’ mother died in childbirth and that his father never recovered from the loss. His brother, Gus, exited the house and perhaps the family as soon as he possibly could. Lars hadn’t dealt with the impact of loss on top of loss added to loss, and his stilted emotional state had been the result.
One day Lars does finally accept one of Karin’s invitations to eat with his family and happily announces during the meal that he has a girlfriend, a woman he met via the internet. Her name is Bianca and she is a wheelchair-bound missionary of Brazilian and Danish descent. He proudly tells them that she is coming for a visit. After she arrives, he lovingly carries her into the main house, to the dumbfounded amazement of Gus and Karin, since she is in fact a lifelike, anatomically correct doll. Lars suggests that for propriety’s sake, Bianca should sleep in a spare bedroom in the big house and he asks Karin to be in charge of dressing her for bed each night.
Concerned about his mental health, Gus and Karin convince Lars to take Bianca to the family doctor, Dagmar, who also is trained as a psychologist. The doctor diagnoses Bianca with low blood pressure and prescribes weekly treatments at the clinic. While Bianca is receiving her treatments, Dagmar spends time talking to Lars, quietly helping him get to the bottom of his issues. She also encourages Gus and Karin to treat Bianca as if she were a real woman for Lars’ benefit.
Over time Lars introduces Bianca to his entire network, including his co-workers and people in the community and at his church. He receives remarkable support from the entire town, so much so that Bianca soon finds herself working in volunteer programs, getting a makeover from the local beautician, and working part-time as a model in a clothing store. As more people interact with Bianca, Lars finds himself interacting with more people. He becomes jealous of all the time Bianca spends away from him and eventually learns that he will have to share Bianca with others. At work he begins to notice one coworker, Margo, in a new and more romantic way, but of course being a faithful man of principle, he cannot cheat on Bianca. Margo simply responds that she hopes one day to find a man as faithful as he.
One morning Lars discovers Bianca is unresponsive when he attempts to wake her. She is rushed to the hospital by ambulance. Her prognosis isn’t good and Lars announces to everyone that she wants to be brought home. News of her illness spreads through town and many of those whose lives were touched by Bianca bring food or flowers or tokens of esteem to the Lindstrom home. When Bianca dies, Margo and Lars share a moment at the graveside. By this point Lars has learned a lot about adult relationship and has dumped a previously unbearable load of emotional baggage. When he asks Margo to go for a walk with him, she readily accepts, a metaphor for their walk together into an unknown future.
It seems clear that to Lars, Bianca is as real as a teddy bear would be to a three-year-old. In fact in the movie there is a touching scene of Lars administering CPR to a teddy bear that Margo keeps at the office which has been “lynched” with a hangman’s noose by a mean and heartless coworker. With the bear properly resuscitated, Lars presents the bear back to Margo, who accepts it with heartfelt gratitude.
Lars had so much pain and loss in his life, too much for him to deal with directly. Pain caused by a hurting father left alone with two boys to raise when their mother died. Left alone again when his brother, Gus, got away from home as soon as he could and apparently never looked back. In order to trudge his way back to a life with more life in it, he triangled in a girlfriend, a woman more hesitant and reclusive than even himself.
When he was ready to face life without his surrogate girlfriend, Lars allowed Bianca to die. I did walk away from the movie wondering which girl—Bianca or Margo—was the title referring to when it uses the word “real.” One was indeed flesh and blood, so she was real in that sense. The other was lifeless plastic, but she was instrumental in giving Lars back his life. The reality created because of Bianca’s presence allowed Lars to see love, acceptance, and the importance of grieving past losses and letting them go.
It’s a movie I recommend heartily, with multiple positive messages for individuals, couples, families and even churches, synagogues and other support networks.