Lars and the Real Girl

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This review was written for the festival screening of "Lars and the Real Girl." 

Toronto International Film Festival

TORONTO -- With an outrageous premise that proves to be less extreme than it sounds, "Lars and the Real Girl" emerges as a deep, sweet-hearted study not only of one lonely character but also of the community that supports him. A small but passionate following is assured; smart marketing that sells the film for what it is could make it a niche favorite.

Ryan Gosling stretches himself further here as Lars, a 27-year-old who has slowly, for no evident reason, retreated into a shell. Attention from others scares him; physical contact is literally painful.

When a porn-loving co-worker casually mentions the Real Doll, a realistic, anatomically correct silicone mannequin sold as a sex toy, Lars covertly orders one, then surprises viewers by using it not for its intended purpose but as a public stand-in for the girlfriend everyone thinks he ought to have.

The introduction is riotously awkward, with Lars bringing "Bianca" to dinner at his brother and sister-in-law's house. They're predictably disturbed, but the town doctor-psychologist (Patricia Clarkson) convinces them that there's nothing to gain, and much to lose, from telling a delusional patient that his mind's creation isn't real.

Astonishingly, the family persuades other members of this small, ice-bound community to accept Lars' imaginary friend. Shades of "Harvey," people extend to Bianca the good will they have for Lars, a gentle man whose life just hasn't been working out. They give Bianca jobs and involve her in social activities that conveniently give Lars time away from her; in one uproarious moment, we see the sex toy propped up in a classroom, "reading" a storybook to rapt children via a cassette player.

Paul Schneider (in his second film involving "Real Girls") is a standout as older brother Gus, who left an unpleasant home as quickly as he could and now suspects that Lars would be less damaged if he'd stuck around. Schneider's confusion -- his struggle to do the right thing despite fearing that Lars is a hopeless case -- is in its way as affecting as the more internal struggle Gosling has to convey.

Gosling's job is the harder one, though, and he manages to depict Lars' impairment without turning it into an ingratiating "affliction" performance. He supplies most of the movie's edge in scenes where some part of Lars is aware that he's around people who think he's insane.

But those situations grow rare quickly in a film where even Gus' burly co-workers start to quiz him, sincerely, about the distinction between hallucinations and delusions. (Showing that he cares enough to do his homework, Gus offers that one is "false perception" and another "false belief.")

This strange story resolves itself with one of the most unexpectedly tearjerking scenes in recent memory, in which the filmmakers' attitude toward their characters -- their unwillingness to make them the butt of jokes that would be easy to indulge -- is as touching as what's onscreen. "Lars" might at first sound like a movie you wouldn't want your kids to see, but it has a heart of gold.

LARS AND THE REAL GIRL
MGM
Sidney Kimmel Entertainment
Credits:
Director: Craig Gillespie
Screenwriter: Nancy Oliver
Producers: Sarah Aubrey, John Cameron, Sidney Kimmel
Executive producers: Peter Berg, Whitney Brown, William Horberg, Bruce Toll
Director of photography: Adam Kimmel
Production designer: Arvinder Grewal
 Music: David Torn
Costume designers: Kirston Leigh Mann, Gerri Gillan
Editor: Tatiana S. Riegel
Cast:
Lars: Ryan Gosling
Dagmar: Patricia Clarkson
Karin: Emily Mortimer
Margo: Kelli Garner
Gus: Paul Schneider
Running time -- 106 minutes
MPAA rating: PG-13

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