The initial footage for Lars and the Real Girl, which came out last month, presented a quirky, jaw-dropping world where Ryan Gosling gets a Real Doll to cure his loneliness. It looked to be a strange, black, indie comedy -- lots of laughs and possible lasciviousness. But that just skims the surface of this film, and to call it a comedy is to ignore the profound depth of Craig Gillespie's feature. While the title insinuates that it's a wacky comedy, it's actually a smart, well-crafted, and heart-wrenching film that smoothly discusses the intricacies of loss and depression. It has many humorous moments, but they serve to relieve tension, not drive the story.
Lars is a young man who spent much of his life alone with his widower father. When his dad finally passed on, his brother, Gus (Paul Schneider), moved home with his wife, Karin (Emily Mortimer). With his brother back and his father gone, Lars retreated not only to the garage, but further into himself. Karin, however, is determined to break Lars out of his shell and get him involved in the family. It is obvious that he cares about them, but at the same time, he uses any excuse possible to avoid Karin's invitations.
Instead, he sits alone in his small home, staring blankly ahead with his security blanket nearby. But he isn't agoraphobic. Lars goes to work and church, and the community loves him. It doesn't seem to matter that he is utterly nervous and socially awkward in public -- especially around a co-worker named Margo (Kelli Garner). He just can't bring himself to accept affection -- that is, until another co-worker introduces him to the world of Real Dolls. Six weeks later, Lars' "Internet girlfriend" arrives, and his family quickly learns that his problems run much deeper than a little loneliness and isolation. But it isn't a sexual connection. Lars has created an entire fake world for Bianca, the doll, explaining that she's a paralyzed missionary and is so religious that she must stay in the house with Karin and Gus. The doll isn't an instrument for sexual exploration, but the conduit Lars needs to deal with his issues.
Quickly, the town bands together to help Lars -- instead of chastising or ridiculing him, they go along with it. From co-workers to school kids, everyone befriends Bianca -- to some comedically-ludicrous levels that seem over-the top, but are really just strong examples of the affection and respect the community has for him. Most importantly, a local doctor named Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson), "treats" Bianca for some mysterious illness every week, and uses it as an opportunity to talk to Lars. He says: "she just wants to be normal," and you know that it isn't Bianca he is talking about. During one of their chats, he reveals that he feels pain when people touch him. It's agonizing to watch him describe the physical pain he feels when people touch him, which he likens to a burn.
Lars' innocent desperation is painful, but beyond the comedy, the drama is also easier to take due to the amazing acts of his community -- especially Mrs. Gruner, perfectly played by Nancy Beatty. Time and time again, she shows warmth and class that goes well beyond the realm of normal decency. She accepts Bianca as real, but not just in a superficial, tight-smile sort of way. In one scene, she chastises Lars for his possessiveness, and it inspired one person in the audience to applaud right then and there.
For the most part, director Craig Gillespie sits back and lets the acting drive the film. Each shot is simple, which lets Gosling's jaw-dropping performance run the show, rather than slickness and fancy filmmaking. The film is the story, and the story is flawless. This is, by far, one of the most impressive films at this year's TIFF. Lars and the Real Girl is an painful, yet inspirational film that mustn't be missed.