Running Time: 106 mins
Rated: Rated PG
Most reviewers (and some internet bloggers who really like the film) offer warnings not to be put off by any film synopsis that readers come across. This review would offer the same advice, a case of not being put off by descriptions of 'what' the film is about but checking on the 'how' it is done.
This does give a reviewer some space to say that the film is about a socially undeveloped young Midwestern man who buys a lifesize doll (called Bianca and who comes with her own back story of being a Brazilian teacher), presents her to his brother and sister-in-law and proceeds to relate to her as a real person, always within the proper bounds of behaviour, but talking with her, telling others what she is saying and always being most attentive.
Clearly, this kind of film has the potential to be odd at the least and offputtingly bizarre at the most - the French actually did make this kind of bizarre film in the 1970s called Lifesize with Michel Piccoli. However, this is a film which can be recommended to a wide audience.
Ryan Gosling has shown that he is a versatile actor in such films as The Believer, The Notebook, Fracture and Half Nelson. Here he makes what might be a rather unbelievable character credible. Lars lives near his brother Gus (Paul Schneider) and his wife Karen (Emily Mortimer) but stays within himself, resisting Karen's efforts to have him over for meals, has very few social graces even though he is polite. He goes to his local Lutheran church. He goes to work. And that is about it. Yet, everybody warms to him and is concerned about him.
This is particularly the case with the arrival of Bianca. Once Gus and Karen have got over their shock and allowed Bianca to stay in their spare room, Karen providing clothes, the word gets round. This is where the film enters the realm of fantasy - in the sense that everybody is kind, understanding, plays along with the make-believe in a way that, unfortunately, most people would not. Bianca is welcomed at the hairdresser's, at the church (as the minister asks a group, 'What would Jesus do?') and the school board.
The reason for all this is that the doctor (a sympathetic Patricia Clarkson) tells Gus and Karen that Lars has a mental illness. He is suffering from a delusional disorder. And the screenplay is at pains to let the audience know something about the condition (Gus googling it, others discussing it). The doctor urges them to accept Lars' behaviour and to accept Bianca. In the meantime, she has informal sessions with Lars where he is confident in opening up and revealing his feelings and, especially, his inability to let anyone touch him physically. His recounting of Bianca's story parallels his own life.
Without going into detail on the progress of Lars' therapy because it is better to experience it along with Lars, it should be said that this is a film which shows the potential for community to combine and contribute to the therapy and healing of someone in need rather than ridiculing or ousting that person because they are different. In fact, Bianca has a good effect on more of the townspeople than Lars.
So, a film about a shy and awkward young man and a lifesize doll? This one is recommended for its humanity.
Rialto Out April 3
Fr Peter Malone MSC directs the film desk of SIGNIS: the World Association of Catholic Communicators, and is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting