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The quirks and cares of Lars' dummy love

Lars and the Real GirlLars and the Real Girl: 106 minutes. Rated: PG. Director: Craig Gillespie. Starring: Ryan Gosling, Emily Mortimer, Paul Schneider, Kelli Garner, Patricia Clarkson.

'Quirky' is an overused word that nonetheless perfectly captures the sense of indefinable, endearing strangeness to which it refers. It is certainly a perfect fit when describing a run of offbeat indie comedies that have come out of the US in recent years — think Punch Drunk Love, Thumbsucker, and Little Miss Sunshine.

What these films have in common is an ability to wring humour and pathos from uncomfortably strange or even downright absurd scenarios. It's a balancing act between playing up characters' idiosyncrasies for laughs, and also celebrating their essential humanity.

Lars and the Real Girl fits the quirky camp, although a casual summary could seem to align it with bawdier fare. The title character (Gosling) is a socially awkward — possibly mentally ill — young man who orders an artificial girlfriend (think anatomically correct mannequin) over the internet.

But Lars and the Real Girl rarely shoots for lowbrow laughs. It's very sweet. Lars is the proverbial innocent. He lives in a converted garage behind the house where his brother, Gus (Schneider) and sister-in-law, Karin (Mortimer) live. His childlike manner makes it unthinkable that anything tawdry might take place between him and his (ahem) companion.

While long-suffering Gus has long since written Lars off as an irredeemable misfit, the big-hearted Karin has always done her best to involve him in their family life. Needless to say, both are taken aback by the arrival of 'Bianca'. More so, as they discover the extent of Lars' delusion — he truly believes Bianca is real.

Things take a further turn toward the absurd, when Lars' doctor, Dagmar (Clarkson), recommends Karin and Gus humour Lars' delusion, thus helping him address whatever emotional issues his subconscious might be processing. They are reluctant, but their concern for Lars' wellbeing outweighs their scepticism. They play along.

Lars is a memorable character, but it's the way those in his community respond to him that really makes the film. Gus and Karin, paragons of patience, must maintain the sympathetic charade even within the confines of their home. And while the locals are initially puzzled, to the point of restrained derision, by the arrival of Bianca in their midst, they eventually rally behind the much loved and misunderstood Lars.

This means not simply playing along with his delusion, but integrating Bianca into community life — she is invited to parties (sometimes without Lars) and even given a job. The comic edge keeps nauseating sentimentality at bay.

On paper the whole scenario sounds far-fetched. But the actors play it straight-faced, and with enough heart that you can't help but be drawn along. Gosling, Mortimer and Garner (who plays Lars' eccentric and infatuated coworker Margo) are nothing short of adorable.

More importantly, Nancy Oliver's compassionate screenplay and Gillespie's sensitive direction find the humour in an essentially sad situation. Frequently they present their audience with a choice between laughing and crying, such is the nature of the incidents portrayed. More often than not they gently prod you towards laughter.

Lars and the Real Girl website

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street. His articles have been published by The Age, Inside Film, the Brisbane Courier Mail and ASif. He is a contributor to the inaugural edition of the journal Studies in Australian Weird Fiction. Email Tim




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