Have you seen Lars & the Real Girl? It’s a humble independent film, easy to pass over on Netflix or at the video store (you remember it : big room, lots of plastic boxes with pretty pictures on them, etc). Turns out it’s a moving story of tolerance, loving someone in spite of his difference, and treating others with dignity. It’s a fantastic film to watch with young people.
Lars (played by Ryan Gosling) is an awkward, painfully shy young man living in a grey, nameless Midwestern town, working in a fluorescent sea of cubicles. He leads a sad, quiet life in a garage belonging to his brother and sister-in-law. One day, overhearing a co-worker giggling about an anatomically correct sex doll, he orders one – for companionship. He names his doll Bianca, tells his family she’s real, and promptly weirds everyone out.
Lars puts Bianca in a wheelchair and takes her everywhere: to church, to a party, down the town’s Main Street. Lars’ brother is astonished and furious. It’s Lars’ sister in law (played by the lovely Emily Mortimer), who insists they go along with Lars’ delusion. When she stands up for Lars, others follow; the church ladies begin asking after Bianca, talking with Lars about his “relationship troubles.” The town doctor treats Bianca for an illness. Bianca “volunteers” at the local hospital. The local hairdresser styles her hair.
The sight of all these people making nice to a mannequin makes you laugh at first. It seems absurd. And then it hits you: these fairly conservative, mainstream townspeople are kind to Bianca because they care about Lars. They do not understand his choice, and it’s clearly an outrageous one, but they love him nonetheless. They can separate their feelings about his behavior from their affection and respect for him.
That’s the essence of respecting difference: in spite of choices that don’t feel right to us personally, we find a way through our feelings to treat others with dignity. Often, it’s our relationship with someone that allows us to see beyond the choice. This is why knowing a marginalized individual makes you more likely to defend her choices.
So here’s the other amazing part of the film: As the townspeople bring Bianca into their lives, Lars blooms. Bianca becomes a channel that lets Lars connect to others. The reclusive man everyone had pitied becomes a vibrant part of the community. When Bianca “dies,” a decision Lars makes because he is clearly ready for a human relationship, the whole town attends the funeral. The pastor deems Bianca a “gift” to the congregation. She is a gift, of course, because by challenging themselves to honor Lars’ difference, they were rewarded with Lars’ transformation into a happy, connected individual.
If you watch Lars with teens, try starting a discussion with these questions:
The people in town clearly didn’t understand Lars’ need to have a relationship with a plastic mannequin. Why did they decide to treat Bianca like she was real?
By honoring Lars’ wishes and treating Bianca as a real person, how did the town contribute to Lars’ transformation in the film?
What allowed Lars to let Bianca die and pursue a relationship with a human? Could he have done this without the others’ support?
Lars chose a mannequin, but difference can be found everywhere: in people who pursue same-sex relationships, for instance, or in kids who can’t or won’t comply with cultural norms about gender. Are they any different than Lars? This beautiful film gives us a chance to see tolerance in action, the potential each of us has to embrace difference, and the impact of loving kindness on a lost soul. Don’t miss it.
I absolutely love the tolerance message of your post, although I do have an issue with the last paragraph. Since Lars eventually leaves Bianca for Margo, it can be interpreted that people should people leave non-conventional partners for someone who fits the binary standard. As an LGBT follower of Christianity, I hope that people in the church can understand and accept that I only want to love my partner without social or religious stigma.
This film fleshes out my book Being Mentally Ill, first published in 1969. The basic idea ot the book was widely accepted in my field, sociology, but had little impact in other fields or with the public.
I think the film does a much better job than my book.
I assume that Nancy Oliver had no contact with my book, or even with the much broader approach known as antipsychiatry. She just invented it on her own, like artists do.
I have to admit, I was very skeptical when my wife rented this movie for our family. But I found myself very touched by its message and it really was a great way to talk to our kids about God’s love in action. I only wish that there were more communities like the one that Lars lived in because you can see how the people are invested in their faith and how it leads them to reach out to others.
Rosalind Wiseman is an internationally recognized author and educator on children, teens, parenting, education and social justice. Her work aims to help parents, educators and young people successfully navigate the social challenges of young adulthood.