The healing power of a my-size soul mate

‘Six Feet Under’ scribe keeps characters inanimate with an anatomically correct doll

Becky Lang

Bianca the love doll might be one of the most fascinating characters in cinema this year. She’s half Brazilian and half Danish, was raised by nuns after her mother died in childbirth, and is taking a break from her missionary work to accompany a lonely man who wears several layers of shirts just in case someone should try to hug him.

“Lars and the Real Girl”

Director: Craig Gillespie
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Patricia Clarkson, Emily Mortimer
Rated: PG-13
Showing at: Landmark Edina Theatre, 3911 West 50th St., Edina

If the acting talent of a human-size, silicon doll isn’t enough to carry a movie, Ryan Gosling’s performance is good enough to fill in for the emotions that his inanimate co-star lacks. Playing a modern hermit who holes up in the garage behind his brother’s house, Gosling portrays a man on the crest of an ambiguous mental illness. His lip-biting, eye squinting mannerisms prove an expert performance, making his face a canvas for exactly what might be ailing him.

Yet this isn’t one of those films that burrow deep inside of a disturbed individual’s closet full of hallucinations. Instead, a sense of perspective is added by giving almost equal attention to the way that Lars affects the population of his small, church-centered town. Manual laborers chat in Spanish-Chinese pidgin about just what a “love doll” is capable of, and women with their hair in tight gray buns hang out in Lars’ parlor “just to sit.”

Written by Nancy Snyder, who also penned the delicately disturbing HBO series “Six Feet Under,” the dialogue avoids trite sentiments and easy revelations. Instead, the movie is propelled by humble characters like Lars’ brother Gus (Paul Schneider with fumbling vulnerability) who’s initially pained by bringing Bianca a salad at dinner, but lets his pregnant wife do most of the worrying. But after watching his brother accuse the doll of taking on a harsh tone, he realizes how ignorant he’s been to his brother’s withering sanity.

The most impressive aspect of “Lars and the Real Girl” is that it resists the path of sensationalizing the disturbing aspects of mental conditions, and instead challenges our eagerness to sort bizarre emotional events into medically- determined categories.

“What we call mental illness isn’t necessarily illness Ö it can be communication, can be a way to work something out,” explains Lars’ psychologist, a candid middle-aged beauty played by Patricia Clarkson.

This perspective removes the easy answer inherent in many movies about the delusional, where surreal events are instantly written off as products of insanity. Instead, viewers are forced to give Lars the benefit of the doubt, and pay attention to what that communication might be.

And full of subtle interconnections, the film argues a method to his madness. As he hands Bianca a bouquet of fake flowers, he explains, “They’re not real so they last forever. Isn’t that neat?” It is these quiet observations that make the movie a masterful depiction of the lengths we go to in order to communicate what we don’t yet understand ourselves.