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Lars and the Real Girl (2007)

"Before viewing" talks introduce the film without spoilers. Watch it, then click on the "After viewing" talk for more. More»» by Randy Heffner

Why the film is worth your time

Lars and the Real Girl asks big “what if” questions about how we, the “normal”, might love those with mental illness. It would be easy for the film to take the premise over the top into staged gags and crude jokes, but it doesn’t.

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"After viewing" talks assume that you have seen the film. They will contain spoilers. More»» by Randy Heffner

How the film enriched and changed me

For me, the impact of Lars and the Real Girl went beyond the film’s top-line theme of forbearance and love in the face another’s mental illness. I came away thinking also about the many ways that each of us has our own odd ways of being, and I felt more deeply how much we each need love and patience in the face of these oddities. I’m now a bit more sensitive to the ugliness when I’m impatient with another’s funny ways, and I want more to look past the funny ways to see the person and their heart and their needs.

If I could be a Karin or a Dagmar or a Mrs. Gruner… Without Karin and her gut sense that Lars needed care and not condemnation, Gus would likely have been stuck simply thinking that Lars was hopelessly loony. Without Dagmar and her ability to take her strong and objective psychology foundation and filter it through the love of working from Lars’ point of view, Karin’s gut sense would not have gained clarity of direction.
Without the kick of Mrs. Gruner’s no-nonsense, what’s-the-problem, let’s-just-do-this attitude, Karin’s direction would have died before it got started. What part will I play in loving and healing someone?

I find Gus to be our strawman character in the film — the one whose development we should most track and in whom we should first look to see ourselves. Paul Schneider plays Gus excellently across a wide range of demeanors and emotions. He starts in denial, having no sensitivity to notice anything going on with Lars. When Lars first comes to dinner, Karin leaves it to just the boys, Gus and Lars, to talk things out. Gus, in his “guys are guys” mode, basically talks himself into his assurance that Lars is just fine. When Bianca first comes to dinner, Gus is almost beyond ability to accept Karin’s restraining influence. At the doctor’s office, he is insistent that Dagmar simply “fix” Lars. I can relate. When people around me are being weird, I want them to just stop. The next morning at breakfast, Gus tries the blunt approach: He tells Lars straight out that Bianca is just “a big plastic thing” and, Lars ignores that, Gus declares, “it’s not my fault.” Later, Gus begins to accept Lars’ condition and he makes a change. He researches to learn more about delusions, and he learns to calmly talk about and explain Lars’ condition to his co-workers. Eventually, Gus learns to accept that Lars may not get better, and he comes to accept responsibility for his part in Lars’ condition. This makes him freer to participate in Lars’ healing, as when he talks with Lars about becoming a man. Finally, at Bianca’s funeral, rather than having an attitude of “good, that’s over,” Gus looks at Lars with a degree of respect and admiration, saying to Dagmar, “He’s unbelievable, huh?”

I felt honesty and real struggle in Gus’ process of transformation. I hurt with Gus as he cried with Karin about his leaving Lars alone with their father. I admired Gus as he came away from the whole experience with greater love and respect for Lars rather than bitterness.

The film presents other perspectives on Lars so that, besides Gus, we might find ourselves in a variety of other characters, too. There’s Cindy, the office receptionist, who is sensitive enough to notice, with a shake of her head, that something is not quite right with “Mr. Sunshine.” There’s the guy at Cindy’s party who feels justified in assuming, based only on the overall situation, that Lars is having sex with Bianca. There’s Cindy’s husband, who dances with Bianca. And especially there’s Margo, who somehow has the fortitude to see past her crush on Lars — and thus her desire to be in Bianca’s place — to be one of the leaders in embracing Bianca.

But Karin, Dagmar, and Mrs. Gruner are the heart, mind, and hands of the film, and I want these to be me. And Margo is central, too, with her acceptance and patience. From her initial concern for Lars, to her telling Gus “calm down,” to her cry of “call 911!” Karin is driven by her heart for Lars. Dagmar has a heart for Lars, but it is primarily her psychologist training that gives her confidence in her quiet way of leading Lars on a path of growth. Mrs. Gruner takes the lead in integrating Bianca into the community, starting with the church meeting and giving the flowers to Bianca on her first visit to church, continuing on with Bianca’s volunteer opportunities. The three each play a key part in Lars’ healing.

It’s more than just accepting another’s mental illness. As Mrs. Gruner says: one person puts dresses on her cat, another gave money to a UFO club, another is a kleptomaniac. Lars’ cubemate plays with action figures. People around us have all sorts of oddities, some that are harmless, some that impose a burden on us. I need the heart to love them, the wisdom to discern whether their oddity is an intentional or uncaring affront on their part or whether it is an area where they have true blindness as their own limitations and offenses — or whether I need to take some responsibility in the situation. And I need to simply take action to deal with it and actively love them. I hope that I can grow these ways. I feel that having seen Lars and the Real Girl helps strengthen me for it.

  • The opening moments of the film, with Lars wrapped against the cold (though standing inside), behind the latticework of his window, watching the children and hearing their laughter, with their movements reflected in the window. I feel simultaneously a sense of longing and of joy.
  • The choice to use quick pans and unsteady camera shots for Gus and Karin’s conversation in the kitchen between meeting Bianca and dinner — I felt more strongly their confusion and disorientation.
  • Karin’s look across the dinner table at Bianca — Emily Mortimer captures perfectly the wide-eyed look of “I don’t believe this and I haven’t a clue what to do but I’ll try to stay here and love Lars in this moment.”
  • Lars’ and Gus’ father’s occupation: “water and power” — he dealt in the source of life (water) and in relational power.
  • That the film includes clear bounding on Lars’ condition so we are not allowed to set the film aside as wholly inappropriate — Dagmar says he’s delusional, but not violent, not psychotic, and not schizophrenic.
  • Just before cutting Bianca’s hair, the three girls remark that Bianca’s hair “is not growing back,” which shows that the town is not delusional about Bianca, but rather is deciding to go along with Lars.
  • While Lars and Gus are talking about becoming men, Gus is doing domestic house chores that some view as women’s work (cooking, laundry).
  • The life and smiles, relationships and interactions, and tone set by the music in the bowling montage.
  • The gradual way that the film plays out Lars’ healing process.
  • Just before the ambulance arrives at the hospital, the nurse says to the others in the emergency room, “they’re here,” indicating again that the town was not delusional about Bianca.
  • The montage showing the word spread around town that Bianca is dying.
  • Many little one liners that fit unobtrusively with the dialog, yet speak to the overall effect of the film, some of which include:
    • Lars, at breakfast: “Bianca says that’s why God made her: to help people.”
    • Karin, in the car on the way to the doctor: “My job is with the school department.”
    • Karin, in Dagmar’s office: “How can we help?”
    • The pastor, after the opening hymn at Bianca’s first visit to church: “I would like to take the opportunity to welcome all of our new visitors to our church today.”
    • Lars, in the treehouse, singing “Love is all that I can give to you…” and the camera panning down from the sky in a spiral.
    • Karin, standing at Bianca’s bedroom door before the outing to the lake: “Bianca, don’t you want to see this beautiful day?”
    • Margo, at Bianca’s funeral: “But there’ll never be anybody like her.”

Screenshots and dialog copyright © 2007 by the filmmakers.


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