Lars and the Real Girl: The Healing Power of Community
Lars and the Real Girl is a surprisingly heartwarming story. Before watching it, this is what I knew of the plot: a man orders a real doll (complete with all the proper anatomy) and acts as if she is his girlfriend. Forgive me for assuming this would be more crude than heartwarming; I was completely wrong. Throughout the movie, some other characters assume the purpose for the doll is the same as I did but, remarkably, they consistently learn to show grace and through that bring the healing that Lars was looking for even if he didn’t realize it.
Lars is introduced as a gentle recluse who has little interest in human interaction other than a few small acts of kindness which seem to be enough for everyone to like him even though they don’t know him very well. He goes to church each week – a fact that will be important later – but doesn’t talk to many there, or to many at work, or with the next-most-central characters his brother Gus and sister-in-law Karin who he shares property with. Karin even tries desperately just to have Lars over for lunch but he literally runs away and locks the door.
So to everyone’s surprise, one day Lars knocks on Gus and Karin’s door. He has a guest coming and asks if she could stay with them. After all, she was a Christian – used to be a missionary – and didn’t think it was right to stay with Lars. In total shock, they agree and then are even more shocked when they meet her: the real doll named Bianca.
Gus panics and wants to take the approach that most of us would probably want to take: tell Lars that he is messed up, Bianca isn’t real, and he better get his life together. He worries about what people will think and feels guilty that he has up to this point ignored the possibility of anything being wrong with Lars – something that his wife had suggested. He does continue to struggle throughout most of the movie but aside from blurting out the truth after only a day or two – which Lars in his delusion doesn’t even acknowledge – fights on for the sake of his brother.
Karin instead becomes the initial catalyst for grace and determines to get through it somehow. It begins with proposing to Lars that for the sake of Bianca after her long flight, they had better take her (with Lars) into the doctor’s for a routine check. The doctor, who is also a psychiatrist, of course is actually diagnosing Lars to try to help through this delusion.
There are so many great things in the scene which follows between the doctor, Gus and Karin: the doctor’s claim that what we call mental illness is sometimes a cry for help and Gus’ shame but grudging acceptance to name a couple. On the main point, though, she encourages them to continue the charade until Lars has worked out whatever it is that is motivating the delusion (these causes are discussed throughout the movie but largely remain secondary to the work needed for healing). Initially Gus continues to think that’s a crazy idea and he doesn’t want to be a part of encouraging it but eventually his love for his brother – as well as probably simply being outnumbered by the doctor and his wife – wins him over.
While this commitment from Gus and Karin get the ball rolling, it doesn’t stop there. The next turning point scene comes with a church meeting about whether they will join in, ultimately deciding that as Christians it is their job to help their fellow man however they can after the priest drops the all-important question: “what would Jesus do?” The church then provides a second major source of community support, all treating Bianca as a real woman. When Lars first shows up to church with Bianca, Margo who also worked with and had a crush on Lars – it is hard to call it much more than that at first considering he rarely talked to her – stares in disbelief from the choir section. She, too, though, joins in with the act for the sake of Lars.
Lars’ healing ultimately comes through the love and acceptance of pretty much the entire town. It isn’t unanimous especially at first. He gets a lot of confused looks early on as people try to figure out what’s happening and there is a bit of people making fun of him when he’s not around, but otherwise the only exception to the rule of acceptance was Gus’ blurting out the truth early in the movie. We see Gus’ coworkers making light of Lars’ delusion but also asking genuine questions about what it is. We see Lars’ coworkers play along as he brings her to a party, although out of his sight are still some dirty looks. The doctor continues by helping identify the underlying issues without Lars even knowing.
The show of support goes past just convincing Lars they’re buying in, though. A store offers Bianca a job. An older church woman gets Bianca volunteering with sick kids. Later in the movie, even the ambulance and hospital workers rush Bianca to the hospital even though they could have easily laughed and said that they had bigger problems to worry about than an unconscious real doll (as most hospitals do). Everybody – even though Lars is nowhere around them – is visibly upset when given the news that Bianca is dying. Dozens of get well cards and flowers appear at their doorstep. Ladies from the church step in to comfort Lars, providing food and life wisdom. And when because of Lars’ maturity growth his delusion phases out Bianca by having her die, they all show up to Bianca’s funeral.
I would argue that if many more than Gus burst out the truth in frustration instead of the support they gave, Lars would have been even further into his problems and even less-likely to be open to healing. They treat her as real to such an extent that Lars begins to be upset when others are wanting to hang out with her and he isn’t able to monopolize her time. By the end of the movie it is actually easy for the viewers to start thinking of Bianca as a real person.
The real-world encouragement here should be pretty obvious. The church – like society as a whole – is not very likely to give the kind of loving support in real life. Most would laugh at Lars and/or not wanting somebody’s personal problems interfering with their comfortable lives. Yet repeatedly throughout the movies the characters showed the same kind of love that Jesus consistently showed: deliberately going out to those in need to embrace them where they were instead of telling them to get themselves together before he wanted anything to do with them. We can do better like those in the movie, though – I have seen it and I believe that with enough work and enough openness to the Holy Spirit we can continue to do similar.