Lars and the Real Girl
Bobby Maddex · November 20, 2009
Bobby reviews Lars and the Real Girl, directed by Craig Gillespie and starring Ryan Gosling, Emily Mortimer, and Paul Schneider.
I had planned to do another podcast episode long before this. I had also planned to start a series on the great Russian director Andre Tarkovsky. Life, however, intervened. Up until two weeks ago, my wife and I were expecting our third child. This was a very important baby to us. Though I find it difficult to explain why.
Perhaps it was because we were truly and for the first time entrusting our family to God—allowing Him to determine its size and to provide the resources needed to sustain it. It was the only pregnancy that we had not planned. Unless you call deciding not to plan, planning.
And it marked our departure from the national average of 2.4 kids and the dog. We wanted this baby terribly. We had waited ten years to have our first daughter Isabel, and we hated ourselves for it.
Indeed, we wish that we had thrown caution to the wind, ignoring those selfish dictates of American culture that told us we had to live a bit before finding ourselves tied down by children, and just started having kids right away.
Here we are now, both in our late 30s, and there’s virtually no chance that we will have the large family we now want—especially after this newest baby died in the womb. Another difference between this baby and my other progeny was that I loved him before he was born.
Don’t get me wrong. The moment I laid eyes on my two daughters, I was completely smitten. It’s just that while they were in utero, I had a difficult time connecting with them. I had heard it said that women become mothers as soon as they become pregnant, and men become fathers as soon as their babies are born. And I think, there’s some truth to this. But our new baby was different.
I don’t know if it was because Paige suffered so much morning sickness this time around, offering concrete proof that this baby existed and was exerting his personhood, or that I suspected, correctly it turns out, that it was my first boy. But I knew this child and loved him very early in the pregnancy.
Paige was actually 18 weeks pregnant when the baby’s heart stopped beating&mdash,well into her second trimester, and we thought we had safely traversed that period when a pregnancy is touch and go. Paige had experienced a miscarriage very early in her first pregnancy, just a week or so after we found out. So we knew such things were possible.
But because she had carried the subsequent babies to term and without a hitch, we were proceeding as if this baby had already been born—including him in future plans and already laughing at his forthcoming interactions with Isabel and Jane. When Paige left for her scheduled doctor appointment, in the city two weeks ago, she had a feeling something was wrong.
Two weeks prior to that, she had felt the baby start moving inside her. And then suddenly, that sensation stopped. She later told me that when the doctors informed her that her baby was dead, she was not at all shocked. The truth was that she didn’t feel pregnant anymore and had been secretly hoping that she was misreading the situation.
I can’t adequately describe just how devastating this death was for us, especially when we found out that Paige would have to return to the doctor in a few days to have the baby’s body removed. We were never angry at God or anything like that. We were just sad, just heartsick and deflated and immediately in need of healing.
In fact, the first thing that Paige did after leaving the doctor’s office was hurry down the street to our former Chicago parish and into the welcoming arms of its incense and icons. I went and met her inside the Church, and together we wept and began praying for our own comfort and the soul of our little boy.
I have talked much in this podcast about community, and I’ll admit that I am somewhat preoccupied with the concept these days as I’ve become ensconced in one for the first time in my life. But please allow me to broach the subject once again, albeit from a different angle that directly relates to our recent loss and in connection with a truly phenomenal film called Lars and the Real Girl.
What I have learned about community these past two weeks, is the nearly miraculous manner in which it can restore the sick back to health. I can honestly say that if not for community, there is no way that I would be able to talk about the tragedy at hand, so soon after it occurred.
When people reach out and actively love as a group, it cannot help but nurture and heal. I don’t care if they’re Christians or not, whether they are saints or hopeless sinners, when they love in concert with others, they become wonderworkers. The communal healing began for us immediately upon learning of our baby’s death.
A pair of Matushkas, one in Chicago and one in Hawaii, both attached to our former parish in the city, started calling my wife and me to encourage us to embrace the reality of our deceased child, to persuade Paige to try and give birth to him naturally, and then bury his little body within the context of a full Orthodox funeral service.
At the time, we thought that this would be impossible. A DNE had already been scheduled, which meant that there would be no body to bury. Even so, we decided with these friends’ help to do whatever we could to face our loss head on, and without trying to spare others are pain.
Without knowing whether he was a boy or girl, we named our baby Adrian, after my patron saint, and told everyone we knew whether by phone call or email or Facebook, that our precious child had died. Of course it turns out that are precious friends and family did not want to be spared anything.
We were soon inundated with cards, flowers, and meals, but mostly with prayers. Prayers that little Adrian would be accepted into the Kingdom of Heaven, that Paige and I would find peace in Christ, and that with the Lord’s mercy our baby would somehow be born whole.
Amazingly, Paige went into labor the day before her scheduled DNE, and she did in fact give birth to a little boy. The labor was nearly painless, and we were both permitted to hold the child and instruct the doctors that we indeed planned on a private burial.
Our former priest, a carpenter by trade, then constructed a tiny casket for us. He made funeral arrangements and visited us at the hospital. Our current priest and his wife tracked down the proper prayers for a miscarried child and scheduled the service for us.
Fellow parishioners dropped off more food than we ever could have possibly eaten. And the Church was packed to the rafters with mourners, including friends and family from as far away as Texas. We cried together and hugged and sang about the Resurrection. We intoned memory eternal, and Father censed that miniature coffin,like there was no tomorrow.
In short, we sent Adrian off to Heaven with a bang. And it felt so good to know that we had not held any of our grief back; that we had asked our community of believers to stare with us at the mystery of life without blinking and that they had responded without hesitation.
Had Paige and I decided to grieve silently, privately, had we not been able to lean on our community, I really believe that our wound would have festered. They say it takes a village to raise a child, but believe me when I tell you, it also takes a village to bury one.
This experience called to mind Lars and the Real Girl, which I saw only a month or two ago, though the film was released in 2007. I had read that it was very good, but its premise had kept me from seeing it in theatre.
Lars Lindstrom, played by Ryan Goslin, a lonely 27-year-old who is losing his grip on reality, purchases a life-size sex doll online, and then proceeds to interact with it as if it’s a real person. Sounds ridiculous, right? Not to mention more than a little perverse. That’s what I thought until I finally rented it at my sister’s urging.
As it happens, this is actually one of the most life affirming and morally uplifting movies that I have ever seen. And it likewise demonstrates the healing power of a loving community. Several years ago, my wife and I heard an audio commentary on NPR, the occasion for which I can no longer recall. What I do remember, however, is the speaker’s central message.
“Go to the funeral,” she said. By which she meant that the best way to live life is to get knee-deep into it, by attending the key events in other people’s lives—no matter how uncomfortable, inconvenient, or disconcerting those events might be.
Doing so, she said, will not only make you feel good but will secure your bonds to your community and ensure that the gesture will be reciprocated when need arises. Plus, it just plain matters to people when you do choose to show up.
You may think that no one will notice if you attend a wedding or not. And chances are, if you don’t attend, no one will notice. That said, I guarantee that the bride and groom remember every person who did decide to come. How much more was this true of Adrian’s funeral?
Each individual, who joined us that day, constituted a blessing. One person would have made a difference, sure, but two is always better. And three is better still. The point is that each attendee contributed exponentially to our healing.
The same goes for Lars, whose mother died giving birth to him and his father blamed him for this death until he, himself, died years later. Lars is incredibly scarred by this experience. He can’t stand to be touched and flees from emotional intimacy whenever possible.
Lars lives in the garage, next to the house he grew up in. His brother Gus, played by Paul Schneider, and Gus’ wife Karen, played by Emily Mortimer, live in the house property. In compounding Lars’ mental instability is the fact that Karen is pregnant.
She is also incredibly loving and wants so badly to connect with Lars; inviting him to meals whenever she catches him sneaking home and even tackling him on one occasion in order to force him to come to dinner.
Lars is scared stiff by Karen and not just because he can’t stand it when she touches him, which he describes as being as painful as a burn, but because he believes that she too will die in childbirth. He doesn’t want to feel close to her to avoid hurting when she passes.
Karen never gives up, however. Her love is relentless. And when Gus suggests that perhaps Lars wants to be left alone, she responds “That’s not what he wants. That’s not how people are.” Karen is, of course, correct. Lars needs more love than most of us, whether he realizes it or not.
He and most of the rest of town attend a local Lutheran church. And early on in the film, we get to hear a portion of one of it pastor’s homilies.
There really only is one law. We need never ask, ‘Lord what should I do?’ because the Lord has told us what to do. Love one another. That my friends is the one true law. Love one another is God in action.
It’s a reminder that Lars’ entire community will take to heart. Immediately upon receiving the sex doll in the mail, Lars names her Bianca, determines that she is half-Brazilian and half-Swedish, creates a history for her that includes being raised by nuns, and then introduces her as his girlfriend to his brother and sister-in-law.
The doll is the crutch that Lars will use to get through life for a while. As a psychologist, played expertly by one of my favorite actresses Patricia Clarkson, will later explain to Gus and Karen, Lars will set Bianca aside when he doesn’t need her anymore.
And the film’s director, Craig Gillespie, is careful to show us that we all tend to cling to objects to soothe ourselves—just as babies do with pacifiers and favorite blankets. For example, one co-worker of Lars’ exhibits an unhealthy attachment to action figures. While another excessively coddles her teddy bear.
Lars’ obsession is just a more extreme variation on this tendency and has nothing to do with any of the qualities that the doll, itself, possesses. Yes, it is anatomically correct, as Karen discovers to her horror, but Lars could care less. He insists that the doll live in the brother’s house—it being improper for him to live with her—and has Karen dress her modestly in turtlenecks and baggy sweatpants.
Indeed, the doll is merely a cinematic conceit used to catalyze the film’s gentle humor. It could have been any object, but the doll makes for a better story. Karen and Gus are, at first, appalled by Lars’ delusion and rush him to a general practitioner, who also happens to be a licensed psychologist, under the pretense that Bianca looks ill.
The real aim here is for the psychologist, Dr. Dagmar, to assess Lars’ mental competency, which she does. Later explaining to Karen and Gus that despite this delusion, Lars is not insane. In fact she says, the best thing to do in this situation is to go along with it. To which Gus responds, “Everyone is going to laugh at him.” “And at you,” replies Dr. Dagmar.
What a great line, and how true. What makes loving difficult sometimes is that it often involves awkwardness or embarrassment or just plain discomfort. Thinking back again at Adrian’s funeral, I completely understand that it must have been difficult for people to join us in burying a miscarried infant.
Our culture does not like contemplating such things, and it seems so much easier to just pretend that nothing happened and move on. The same goes for Karen and Gus, who want Lars’ illness to just go away, and partly because of how it makes them feel.
Fortunately, they heed the doctor’s advice and try to make a go at treating Bianca like a real person. As previously mentioned, Karen in particular has a fondness for Lars and so intuitively recognizes that it will take more than her love and that of her husband to heal him. She, thus, calls on the kindness of the entire town—begging them to likewise treat Bianca as if she were will.
There’s resistance at first, particularly at church, where one individual compares the doll to a golden calf. But in the end, the townsfolk, who know Lars well and likewise have an affection for him, accept Bianca and integrate her into their community.
Now this may seem like enabling. And I must admit that when I first viewed this movie, I found myself growing increasingly uncomfortable as Bianca is invited to parties and other gatherings. Later however, we see the townspeople begin involving Bianca on her own, leaving Lars to himself. It’s a very subtle transition but an important one.
In taking Bianca to volunteer at the hospital or to join the school board, they are also weaning Lars off of her—validating his delusion to be sure but also subverting it. I doubt that anyone in the town even recognizes what they are doing. But like I said before, when a community comes together to love, it cannot help but heal.
Their collective efforts transcend individual motivations, and we the scales begin to fall from Lars’ eyes. One sign that Lars is getting better is his improved relationship with his brother. As is so often the case, it is not just the object of one’s affection who is healed by love; rather both parties benefit.
Over the course of the movie, Gus realizes that he had unintentionally abandoned Lars and eventually apologizes to him. By taking partial responsibility for Lars’ illness, he also begins to grow as a husband and father.
One of my favorite scenes in the movie occurs in the laundry room of Gus’ house. On the verge of a breakthrough, Lars asks his brother, “How did you know that you were a man? Was it sex?” Gus thinks about this question for a moment, and then provides a stunning answer, made more so by the fact that it is spoken in a Hollywood film. “When you decide to do right, and not what’s right for you, what’s right for everybody, even when it hurts.”
It’s at this juncture that the viewer realizes that everything is going to turn out okay. Gus has learned that what’s right is loving his delusional brother. And you can see in Lars’ eyes that he has learned that doing right will mean giving up Bianca.
Permit me to share with you one additional scene from this film that I found particularly insightful. Just beyond the midway point, Bianca comes so ill, at least in Lars’ mind, that she has to remain in bed. In response, those in the town bring food to Lars in shifts and sit with him in Gus’ home, which makes Lars uncomfortable.
“Is there something I should be doing right now,” he asks one of the lady’s sitting beside him. “No dear,” she answers. “You eat. This is what people do when tragedy strikes. They come over and sit.” Perhaps you have experienced something similar to this situation, yourself. If so, you know what a comfort it is for people to bring you food and just sort of hang out.
Again, the experience is a bit awkward for those doing the hanging out. What do you say? How do you act? But there may be no more meaningful expression of love, than subjecting yourself to someone else’s sorrow.
When Adrian died, many people dropped by with chicken or cobbler or soup. And they just sort of hung around. Paige and I were often at a loss for words. There wasn’t much conversation. Instead we would just stand there or sit, and let part of the heaviness of our grief rest for a moment on the shoulders of others. Such did more than anything else good to start healing our broken hearts.
It was at this point that I was going to talk a little bit about some of the technical merits of this touching film. But I think I’ll take this opportunity instead to just thank those again who have helped my family through this difficult weeks.
Thank you so much for coming to the funeral. Thank you for not being afraid of us and our sorrow. Thank you for coming together in prayer for us. Thank you for cooking for us and sending us cards and calling us on the phone. Thank you for being God in action.
Through the prayers of baby Adrian, our new Heavenly intercessor, may the Lord Jesus Christ have mercy on all of us and save us. Amen.