“You know, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. What we call mental illness isn’t always just an illness. It can be a communication; it can be a way to work something out,” says Dr. Berman. Gus responds, “Fantastic. When will it be over?” Dr. Berman says, “When he doesn’t need it anymore.”
Mental illness can be a tough thing to deal with in a film, not just as a subject matter but also in trying to portray it as accurately as possible. Some movies can get it wrong; some can get it just right. One such film that gets it right is Craig Gillespie’s second directorial effort, Lars and the Real Girl (a film he spent five years trying to make). I didn’t get to see Lars and the Real Girl during its initial theatrical run; it took me nearly seven years to see it on the big screen. The School of Visual Arts in New York City recently hosted an After School Special Film Festival where it played some films that were made or worked on by SVA alumni. I attended a Saturday evening screening of Lars and the Real Girl (presented in a poorly framed* 35mm film print) followed by a Q&A with SVA graduate Gillespie, which I enjoyed very much.
*Poorly framed as in the boom mics used to record the dialogue kept appearing at the top of the frame; this was an issue that the projectionist did not deal with until 3/4 into the film and it pissed me off because the appearance of the boom mic made several dramatic moments unintentionally funny (luckily I had already seen the film on cable a few times).
2007’s Lars and the Real Girl follows a socially inept young man named Lars as he introduces an anatomically correct sex doll named Bianca as his recently arrived girlfriend to his older brother and sister-in-law under the delusion that Bianca is real. Lars’ family and the rest of the town slowly accept Bianca into their community in order to help Lars play out the delusion so that he can get better. Gillespie gathered an impressive cast for this film: Ryan Gosling (as Lars), Paul Schneider (as Gus), Emily Mortimer (as Karin), Kelli Garner (as Margo), and Patricia Clarkson (as Dr. Berman). Gosling gives a brave performance, crafting a complex character who could have easily been taken as a cheap joke in the hands of a lesser actor. It is the instilling of complete sincerity into Lars that allows him to be sympathized with rather than mocked. Mortimer is another standout as the loving sister-in-law who goes to great lengths to make him feel included in the family.
Gillespie’s direction is terrific as he guides the actors through award-worthy performances. Nancy Oliver’s Oscar-nominated screenplay carefully examines a young man’s efforts to find his way out of the isolation and social awkwardness he has fallen into through the delusion of a girlfriend (who comes in the form of a sex doll but is seen by Lars as an actual real person). Oliver’s script, which contains some humor, is elevated by not having any cheap jokes made at the expense of the sex doll, and she manages to make the community’s response (to help Lars and accept Bianca) feel genuine. Adam Kimmel’s cinematography is top-notch, capturing the harshness of Winter and the renewed hope that Spring brings along. Gillespie’s film is an underrated one, and it is one that will continue to find an audience as the years go by.