Mental health issues? Not one axe murder or senseless killing, so unrealistic!

LARS AND THE REAL GIRL

Directed by: Craig Gillespie

Written by: Nancy Oliver

Featuring: Ryan Gosling, Emily Mortimer, Paul Schneider, Kelli Garner, Patricia Clarkson,
Maxwell McCabe-Lokos

Lars Lindstrom lives in the garage of his deceased parents’ house whilst his brother, Gus, and his wife Karin live in the main house. Lars is painfully shy and has problems even connecting with his brother and sister-in-law despite their numerous and heartfelt efforts to get him to eat family meals with them. One day Lars’ office booth colleague shows him a site where you can customise and buy a fully working and anatomically correct sex or ‘love’ doll. Before too long Lars announces he has a new girlfriend who has a loose command of the English language and needs a wheelchair to get around, nevertheless Gus and Karin are delighted until they find out that Bianca is a sex-doll. How Lars’ family, friends and the town’s community deal with this development is our story…

What we have in Lars and the Real Girl is a modern retelling of Pygmalion. A lost, lonely man, delusion perhaps, bestows, life, love, on an inanimate object, a facsimile of a woman. In Pygmalion, the love of the sculptor fantastically brings that object of his love to life but with Lars and the Real Girl writer Nancy Oliver has the love for ‘Bianca’ transferring to the family, friends and town community, bringing them ‘to life.’ Oliver has writing chops having contributed to Six-Feet-Under and True Blood but here she shows a softer side. Much like those TV shows we are in a fanciful place, after all if the last few years have shown us a lot of people are plainly and irredeemably awful, but the reaction to Lars’ problems in the story is beautiful, poignant and dare I say palate cleansing. Even with this wishful thinking Oliver shows a proper understanding of mental health and wrote a careful and gentle depiction. The most telling line comes early in this film from the superb Emily Mortimer as she talks to the equally superb Patricia Clarkson, ‘How can I help?’ Indeed.

Director Craig Gillespie more recently of the, in some ways similar, ‘I Tonya’ and the ‘I haven’t seen it yet’ Cruella, has the perfect cast to work with. Ryan Gosling, an actor who goes from eclectic roles with admirable ease, is perfectly cast as the soft and gentle Lars who has been profoundly affected by early events in his family, in particular his mother’s death due to his birth. As mentioned previously Emily Mortimer is impressively believable as the kind and caring sister-in-law Karin and special praise must go to Paul Schneider, most recently seen in Amazon’s ‘Tales from Loop’, who has the challenging task of, at least in the opening acts, the least sympathetic character, he clearly is playing the part of the cynical viewer. Patricia Clarkson is equally impressive as the clever, understanding and helpful town doctor, Dagmar, we would all love our GP to be this impressive lady. The ‘real girl’ of the story is played with cute vivacity by Kelli Garner to round out the main and consistently top form cast.

UK viewers will be delighted to see Canada’s answer to Mackenzie Crook, Maxwell McCabe-Lokos, who when he rolled up early on as Lars’ work colleague, I thought it was Mackenzie Crook for a few seconds.

The film begins by fooling you into thinking it is a full-on comedy, the introduction of Bianca by Lars to Gus and Karin had me laughing so long and loud that my wife, still in bed, called down the stairs to see if I was okay, but much like I, Tonya, the ‘funny’ soon gives way to the drama but in such a skilful way it does not jar and you really do not notice. If you are made of stone, or one of the irredeemably awful people I mentioned earlier, you will not latch on the underlying sadness of the fragile and lost Lars. What Oliver’s screenplay, the directing and acting all are trying to show us, and successfully achieve, is that understanding, empathy and compassion are always the strongest and kindest ways to help each other. With Lars’ delusion this could have been a huge joke of a film, but it is to everyone’s credit the initial hilarity drops off like Autumn leaves and we end up with a sensitive and small peek at mental health and the importance of compassion in friends and family.

The whole film is intelligently made, with a clear comprehension of mental health, a refreshing and interesting take on the topic that is very much in the fore of local and national discussions these days.

If we look at ‘Lars’ in the cold light of day of course it is not fully realistic, but it is pleasing to watch a group of people come together, work together, to help out a member of their community who is having a serious health problem. I know this is going to shock some people, but this does happen from time to time in the real world. The writing, directing and acting are uniformly superb, and I am glad I spent time with Lars and his friends in that cold northern town in the USA.

Lars and the Real Girl was polarising amongst critics both professional and amateur with more than few not enjoying the perceived lack of realism in how the townsfolk and neighbours reacted to an admittedly extreme case of delusion. Yet so many are happy to watch any film where a mental health problem means wacky invisible friends who ‘help the protagonist’ like some realistic Jiminy Cricket, or the problem results in picking up big knives and weapons and randomly slaughtering people in increasingly inventive ways. Or you can become a criminal genius that randomly kills and terrorises people for no real reason – clearly a much more correct depiction of mental health. I remember working as a contracting electrician at Tatchbury Mount Mental Health Hospital way back in the early nineties and being told to specifically stay away from ‘Evil Super Villain’ and ‘Masked Murderers’ wards. Luckily, the people who suffered nervous breakdowns outnumbered these.

Watch Lars and the Real Girl, and feel sad but uplifted, and watch Joker and laugh at the comedic depiction of mental health issues.

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