When I sat down for a press screening of Craig Gillespie's latest film, "Lars and the Real Girl," I was expecting a slightly more intelligent rehash of Gillespie's feature film debut, the recent "Mr. Woodcock," a slightly above average comedy featuring Billy Bob Thornton doing the same thing he's been doing in his last few films.
With Indianapolis's Heartland Film Festival right around the corner, where "Lars and the Real Girl" will be screening and has already received a Crystal Heart Award, I knew that the film would undoubtedly qualify fit the Heartland mission to promote films that celebrate the positive aspects of life.
Okay, this rules out any kinship to "Mr. Woodcock."
As "Lars and the Real Girl" began to play, I began to notice a transformation in myself...I completely forgot that I was a film critic sitting amongst other film critics.
In other words, I lost myself in the world of "Lars and the Real Girl."
I laughed. I really laughed.
I'm not talking about the kind of laughs that occur at the expense of other human beings. I'm not talking about laughing at physical pratfalls, sex jokes, potty mouth language or grossly exaggerated situations.
I'm talking about deeply felt, richly human laughter birthed out of the everyday absurdities and impossible to imagine situations in which we so often find ourselves living.
Yet, I didn't just laugh. That's the amazing thing about "Lars and the Real Girl."
I cried. Oh how I cried.
I cried for Lars (Ryan Gosling), a young man so wounded by his childhood that he creates, in essence, an alternative universe in which he can survive.
I cried as I watched his brother (Paul Schneider) and his pregnant sister-in-law (Emily Mortimer) try so desperately to connect with him.
I cried as I watched the unfathomable unfold and the townsfolk in this upper Midwest community wrap themselves around him and refuse to let go.
I cried as a young lady, Margo (Kelli Garner), gently flirted from a safe distance, and as Lars' minister did what all ministers (R.D. Reid) should do and, yes, what I do believe Jesus would have done.
I cried as a compassionate general practitioner/psychologist (Patricia Clarkson) gently weaved her way through the injured heart and soul of Lars.
I even cried for Bianca, the "girl" who was so real for Lars that she loved him when nobody else could reach him.
I cried tears of pain, tears of joy, tears of laughter and, yes, even tears for myself as "Lars and the Real Girl" gently weaved its way through my own childhood wounds and adult anxieties.
To be honest, I am crying even now as I write this review and remember this remarkably touching film.
As scripted by "Six Feet Under" writer Nancy Oliver and directed by Craig Gillespie, "Lars and the Real Girl" is easily one of 2007's best films, a profoundly funny and honest look at life, loss, depression, family, community and so much more. It is in a sub-genre all its own with hints of family drama, psychological drama, quirky romance and plain ole' indie darling.
In "Lars and the Real Girl," Lars is a 27-year-old man who lives in the family garage of the home he inherited along with his brother when his father died. Lars is a socially awkward yet functional loner who is clearly beloved by this small community as he goes about his daily regimen of working in an office, attending church and sitting alone staring off into nowhere in the garage.
It is difficult to describe "Lars and the Real Girl" without giving away plot points that are best left experienced than read in this review. Suffice it to say that his childhood was less than idyllic as he was raised by a grieving father with less than ideal parenting skills and was quickly abandoned by an older brother just anxious to get out of the home.
Left alone to fend for himself, Lars became a gentle soul incapable of connection and for whom touch, in some of Gosling's most amazing scenes, is clearly a painful experience.
Lars works and he cares for himself. He is, quite simply, alone.
He's alone, at least, until the night when, several weeks after learning about a website from a co-worker, Lars surprisingly knocks on Gus and Karin's door and announces that he has a female friend visiting that he met on the internet. Clearly overjoyed at Lars' connection to someone, Gus and Karin listen as Lars cautions them that Bianca's a conservative Christian missionary who is now in a wheelchair. As a result, both he and Bianca believe she should stay in Gus and Karin's home overnight.
A mere 30 minutes later, wonderful meal and new towels in place, Bianca is introduced to the bewildered family as a "Real Doll," a lifesize, anatomically correct "girlfriend."
It would have been easy, at this point, for "Lars and the Real Girl" to wander off into a sea of sex jokes, laughs at the expense of Lars and perverse situations.
Yet, for Lars, Bianca is not about sex. Bianca is about love and healing.
Watching "Lars and the Real Girl" unfold from this point requires a certain suspension of belief from the typical American thought pattern. Is there ANYWHERE in this country a place where such compassion, such acceptance and such complete and utter devotion to a human being exists?
Is there a church, a workplace, a neighborhood or even just a group of friends who could possibly mimic what occurs in "Lars and the Real Girl?" I've always been intensely blessed with a small, very devoted circle in my own life...but "Lars and the Real Girl" paints a picture of a community in which I doubt any of us live.
But, man, I surely want to.
The overwhelming theme of "Lars and the Real Girl" reminds me much of Margery Williams' lovely children's book "The Velveteen Rabbit," for in the film it seems that it is love that makes you real whether you are an anatomically correct doll, a wounded soul or a community that has forgotten what community is all about.
"Lars and the Real Girl," especially with its Gillespie's lofty vision of rising above its rather perverse potential, would have failed miserably without a cast that completely and utterly surrendered to it.
Ryan Gosling again reminds us that he is one of America's best young actors with a performance that is properly restrained complete with the appropriate nervous tics, gestures and uncomfortable physicality that accompanies a delusional disorder combined with social anxieties. Gosling's performance, while often uncomfortable to watch, is spot-on perfect.
Likewise, Paul Schneider and Emily Mortimer are breathtakingly wonderful as Lars' loyal brother and sister-in-law. Schneider gives ever so slight glimpses of his own woundedness, while Mortimer offers an award-worthy performance that brings to mind Amy Adams' brilliance in "Junebug."
Even the secondary performances are stellar, most notably a wonderfully sensitive, compassionate and playful turn by Kelli Garner as a flesh and blood girl who may very well symbolize hope for Lars, and Patricia Clarkson's dependably steady portrayal of a psychologist who figures out what's going on.
Nancy Beatty, R.D. Reid and Karen Robinson also shine in supporting roles, though even the film's extras shine in creating the aura of a small town that defies belief.
The only problem with "Lars and the Real Girl" is, in reality, a great one to have. By the end of "Lars and the Real Girl," the depth of each character was so clearly defined that little bits and pieces of storyline left unresolved are ever so slightly bothersome. In a community so loving and so caring, the welfare of these wonderful people mattered and, as a result, Gillespie's decision to end the film the way he did made me wonder about Gus, Karin, the baby and, on a certain level, even this small town who refused to give up this young man they cared about so much.
Gillespie largely sits back and allows "Lars and the Real Girl" to unfold, trusting the actors to move the story forward. It is a trust that is never betrayed, as "Lars and the Real Girl" is one of the most beautifully realized, deeply authentic films I have viewed in quite some time.
Both uniquely absurd and painfully real, "Lars and the Real Girl" is one of 2007's true cinematic jewels and, yes, in keeping with the mission of the Heartland Film Festival, a powerful reminder that, even when life knocks us unimaginably down, it really is a wonderful life.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic