Audience Assumptions: None
Part One: Be Specific With Your Mail-Order Brides
I had never heard of this film until my dad recommended it and showed me a trailer after watching La La Land. A relatively small film set in Wisconsin and starring Ryan Gosling, Lars and the Real Girl is about a man who lives in his brother and sister-in-law’s garage. His family encourages him to be more outgoing and social, which he has difficulty with because he has difficulty interacting with other human beings. The plot kicks off when he announces out of the blue that he has a girlfriend from Brazil who’s flown out to stay with him, and who, to the shock of his family, turns out to be a life-sized sex doll ordered through the internet. Lars apparently has a delusion that the doll, Bianca, is alive and treats her as such, and slowly his family and the rest of the town come to embrace his eccentricity and also start treating her like a real person.
This movie is part comedy and part drama, with a powerful sense of empathy woven throughout. It comes across as simply charming, with members of the community taking Bianca to parties, giving her makeovers, and “volunteering” her for community service events. Lars and his brother are the two most developed characters in the film, and it spends considerable time delineating their personal relationship, which is initially disturbed by the brother’s resistance to accepting Bianca. The overarching plot is also a vehicle for Lars’ personal growth as someone with a limited ability to socialize, as he learns about himself and other people through Bianca. It’s a delightful little story about an adult coming of age, about acceptance, and about community.
Part Two: Why Can’t We Have Acceptance of Mental Illness In More Films?
This film deals lightly with mental illness by way of Lars’ delusion about Bianca. Although never directly stated as having a named illness or medical condition outside of this delusion, we learn that Lars had a difficult childhood and tends to be avoidant of others throughout the film. He doesn’t like spending time with his family even for basic events like dinner, he doesn’t respond to the advances from one of his coworkers, and when he does interact, his words are often stilted and he avoids eye contact. He dislikes being touched, and he shows little ability to empathize with other people. This is still true when he brings home Bianca, and his behavior becomes problematic later in the film when the community starts to ferry Bianca around without him. Through meeting a “person” he cares about and can relate to, at least in his own mind, Lars begins to become more open toward others.
His family of course thinks he’s gone off his rocker when he brings home Bianca and takes him to a doctor for diagnosis. She’s the one who proposes they experimentally accept Lars’ statements about Bianca and treat her like a real person, as a sort of therapy for Lars. I suppose the film raises concerns about disclosure of treatment, or even illness, to the patient, though I am unsure how delusions specifically are treated in reality. To my understanding, delusions may be linked to other illnesses and occasionally treated with medications, but the film makes it pretty clear that Lars’ specific delusion is unrelated to other medical conditions and more of an atypical cognitive response to social interaction. I personally found the film respectful of people with mental illnesses and medical conditions, though I can understand if other people might find the film problematic in this area.
I like that the film doesn’t try to define Lars’ mental state outside of being delusional; he manages a life he finds acceptable, so giving his socially dissonant behavior a name feels unnecessary. The delusion serves the plot as much more than a gimmick for the trailer, as Lars expresses himself to those around him by interpreting Bianca’s words. In that sense, the delusion is a way for Lars to communicate his thoughts and desires in a way he was unable to before. This is especially apparent toward the end of the film when he perceives Bianca to have rejected his marriage proposal, and later says she’s getting sick.
Part Three: Personal Growth Via a Truly Sad Puppet Funeral
The latter third of the film becomes far more serious and quite sad in comparison to what came before. At this point, Bianca has been fully accepted by the community and even Lars’ family, but Lars is struggling with the idea that if Bianca is treated like a real person, that means he no longer has her all to himself. As Bianca starts going away to PTA meetings and hair appointments without him, Lars begins to interact with more people on his own, including a romantically interested female coworker whom he finds he enjoys spending time with. Bianca starts to become a hindrance to him developing his relationships with living people, and although not consciously aware of this, his subconscious perception of his situation and desire to move on comes across in the way Bianca acts.
First, he proposes to her but she rejects his offer, something Lars isn’t sure what to make of considering that up until now, Bianca has agreed with him on nearly everything because he’s the one dictating her actions. The fabricated illness Bianca has that’s actually a ruse to keep Lars coming to his therapist starts to get worse in Lars’ mind, eventually culminating in Lars thinking her to be dying.
The scenes where Bianca’s condition worsens are just as tragic as if an actual person in the film were dying because the event is all told through the main character’s reactions. It is a fascinating and simultaneously depressing clash between two parts of him, one of which loves Bianca and sees her as the first person he ever got close to, and the other of which is killing her off so that he can build a relationship with another person. The internal schism eventually culminates in Bianca’s death and subsequent funeral, which is genuinely touching and has the whole community again come together to support Lars and grieve for what Bianca represented to them personally.
I like that the film doesn’t end with him immediately getting together with the coworker he likes, or even necessarily recognizing his delusion. It offers solace and the opportunity for Lars to move on with his life, which is more important to his character arc than the arbitrary goal markers a less conscientious film might impose. I think a lot of people can find something to think about concerning growth, relationships, personhood, and grief through this film, and also enjoy it on more superficial levels for its charm and humor.