This film can be watched on different levels (can't they all?) For those with eyes to see that enable them to get past an oddball goofy comedy, this film is a gift as it offers an invitation to reflect on why we have become the person we are - and what we might work at - if we feel the need. It is impossible to discuss this film in any way without revealing what happens - but I think that won't detract much from seeing it for the first time as the mastery is in how it is done.
Set in a remote town on the Wisconsin prairie with a population the majority of whom seem to have Scandinavian ancestry, this is a tender tale that sees Ryan Gosling in the lead role as Lars Lindstrom. The first time I have seen him play a role I liked. What the film points out, and for this it made it an uncomfortable watch for me, is how much we are a product of our family and our upbringing. To engage with this film requires us to reflect on how we have become who we are.
Lars's mother died delivering him. His father could not escape the grief this caused and lived his life deeply affected by it. Consequently Lars and his brother Gus (Paul Schneider) had a difficult upbringing - I imagine Lars felt a strong sense of guilt. Gus left home at the first opportunity to escape the brooding darkness of a continuing grief, leaving Lars with dad. Following the death of their father, Gus lives in the former family home with his wife Karin (Emily Mortimer) and Lars, who has become a withdrawn and an almost completely socially dysfunctional internalised man, lives in the garage.
Lars is unable to touch as to him the touch of other people feels like burning - perhaps stemming from his father's all-consuming grief? He is fearful for the fate of his sister-in-law who is pregnant and in his view may die. He is unable to act within normal social parameters and at the opening of the film cannot commit to even going across to the house of Gus and Karin to have breakfast. Lars is however a regular worshipper at the local church where many of the congregation are also co-workers from his office. (It's a pity there's no exploration or explanation of how Lars is able to hold down a job.)
Lars shares a cubicle with Kurt (Maxwell McCabe-Lokos) who through the internet introduces him to an anatomically fully functional sex doll that can be designed and ordered online. Meanwhile another co-worker, Margot (Kelli Garner) clearly is attracted to Lars despite his odd behaviour, but he is unable or unwilling to see this.
Then one day a large packing case is delivered to the garage containing 'Bianca' - a former missionary, raised by nuns, very religious, who is half Brazilian, half Danish. Lars interacts with Bianca as though she were real. To begin with this is very difficult as he takes her, in her wheelchair, to have supper with Gus and Karin. Lars interacts with Bianca much as a child would bend to listen to imaginary speech which is then relayed to those gathered around. Things are okay while Bianca's existence is contained within the home but when Lars begins taking her out problems occur!
Gus and Karin arrange a family meeting with the doctor - Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson) who happens to also be a trained psychologist. Knowing the family and recognising what is going on, she goes along with things subjecting Bianca to a series of tests resulting in a diagnosis requiring a weekly treatment in her surgery - which is the pretext to help Lars process what is going on. I am told by someone who knows about such things that Bianca performs the role of Transitional Object for Lars and sure enough in time he begins to socialise, take Bianca to parties, she becomes well known around town, gets a part time job and visits folk in hospital.
The community come together to help Lars emerge from his cocoon and grow in confidence and the ability to interact socially. Love is costly and that motif is repeated throughout the film - but as is the case with love, the cost is willingly borne sacrificially both by family and the wider community.
One evening Lars declares that Bianca is unresponsive and sick, he calls 911 and Bianca is rushed to hospital by ambulance where the prognosis is not good. Some of the older women come to the house to knit, cook for Lars and keep him company. He asks them why they are there and gets the response "That's what they [people] do when tragedy strikes - they come and sit". After a while, Lars declares that Bianca has died. She is buried with all the townsfolk in attendance and so the death of Bianca enables the rebirth of Lars.
This film has so much going for it - and it's only 102 minutes long so it doesn't string things out for the sake of it. There is much to reflect on.
- How families and communities can help those it is in their power to help.
- How important it can be to help on the terms of those who need the help rather than the help-giver.
- The usefulness of psychological insight and transitional objects.
- A positive portrayal of a clergy person in Revd Bock (R. D. Reid).
- How honesty in relationships can establish a good foundation for growth and development.
- The film avoids any mocking of Lars and also any smuttiness around Bianca's intended function.
- Lars' honourable treatment of Bianca.
Alissa Simon of Variety stated, "Craig Gillespie's sweetly off-kilter film plays like a Coen brothers riff on Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon tales, defying its lurid premise with a gentle comic drama grounded in reality." That is a very apt description. This film only just clawed back its production costs at the box office and through disc sales. I'm glad I have contributed to the process and would encourage you to do the same - perhaps we have a cult sleeper here! I'll give it 8/10.