When I watch a movie or read a book about a subject that is deeply personal to me, I often wonder – does my personal connection to the text hinder or enhance my ability to look at it critically?
Looking at every text through the feminist lens has made it impossible for me to truly appreciate a story that doesn’t have at least one strong female character or some kind of female perspective. I haven’t seen, and don’t plan to see, The Social Network, for precisely this reason. I have no doubt that saying this will prompt some people to mansplain to me that films are works of art and I can’t judge art by how politically correct it is, but I don’t care. I’m a woman, and if there’s no female perspective in a story, I’m not interested.
There is one issue, though, that affects me even more deeply on a personal level than feminism does. I have an autistic brother, and every time I watch a movie or read a story with a disabled character, I relate the text to my experience with him.
That personal connection has its drawbacks. My brother is not the same as all people with autism, and my experience with him is not the same as the experience of all people with disabled siblings. At the same time, my life with him gives me more insight into the portrayal of disability in literature and film.
I kept all of this in mind when I watched Lars and the Real Girl:
Summary: Lars (Ryan Gosling) is socially inept and living in the garage of his brother and sister-in-law’s house, in an unspecified Midwestern town. He rarely accepts his sister-in-law’s invitations to come to dinner, and when he does, he has very little to say. A pretty, young, new co-worker shows interest in him, but he avoids her company even more than he avoids other people. When his cubicle mate shows him a website advertising the Real Doll (WARNING: link is not work-safe), Lars purchases a doll and introduces her to his relatives and friends as his girlfriend, Bianca. His brother and sister-in-law arrange an appointment with Lars’s doctor (Patricia Clarkson). She encourages them to play into the delusion until Lars works through the issues that are now manifesting in Bianca’s appearance.
Review: When I watched the film, I paid attention to three things – Lars, his family, and the people he interacted with at work and at church.
I’ll start by saying that Ryan Gosling’s performance as Lars is possibly the least schticky portrayal of a person with a disability or mental illness I have ever seen. There’s nothing Oscar-baity about it (which is probably why he didn’t get an Oscar nomination for it; it’s too subtle). The script asks us to believe that something is seriously “off” about Lars that few people have noticed until Bianca’s arrival, and Gosling’s acting makes it work.
The most heartbreaking thing about watching Lars go through his day is seeing how badly he wants to connect with people but doesn’t know how. He watches the door to his sister-in-law’s house, waiting for her to come visit and invite him over, but rejects the invitation most of the time. He runs away from his pretty new co-worker, Margo, and ignores her when she comes to talk to him, precisely because he’s the person he most eagerly wants to know better – her arrival is one (though not the only) catalyst of his purchasing Bianca in the first place.
I was also fascinated to see the characteristics Lars gives Bianca: she was a Brazilian missionary with a physical disability and needed a wheelchair to get around. He carries her around and lifts her in and out of her wheelchair. The man with the disability invents a girlfriend who also has a disability. Coincidence? I think not.
There is a scene in the movie with Lars and his doctor that hit very close to home, so close that I had to pause the DVD for a minute. He tells his doctor that he loves his sister-in-law, but he doesn’t like that she’s so physically affectionate. She hugs too much even if people don’t like to be hugged. The doctor experiments with touch (with Lars’s consent) by resting her fingers on Lars until he reaches the point where he’s uncomfortable and shrugs her away. He looked physically pained, almost out of breath and bursting to get out of his skin, by her resting her hand on his arm. I watched that scene and wondered, “Is this how Daniel feels? Do I hug him too much?” The scene where he holds Margo’s hand and doesn’t let go right away is a huge, huge moment for him.
On the flip side of the issue, you have Lars’s brother and sister-in-law, played by Paul Schneider and Emily Mortimer. Speaking from personal experience, I can say that the look on Gus’s face when he saw Lars on the couch with a life-sized doll that was a “girlfriend” was spot-on. Everyone who lives with a person with a disability has that moment of realization that something is different, and horribly wrong, with the person you love. As you grow older, educate yourself, and learn more about the disability in question, you may come to the conclusion that something that seems “horribly wrong” is just a different way of looking at the world…but you never forget the first moment when you see that the person you love isn’t “normal” and will have a much, much harder time navigating that world. I was six when my brother was diagnosed with autism and I don’t remember a single moment as much as a series of events where it slowly dawned on me that Daniel wasn’t normal, and wouldn’t talk to me or play with me the way he used to. Gus’s combination of anger, fear, and guilt, and the moment where he told Karen that he knew Lars would never get better…it almost killed me.
The townspeople were, surprisingly, more initially accepting of Lars’s new girlfriend than Gus was. They were confused and weirded out, but not repulsed, angry, or intolerant. I understood why – unlike Gus, they didn’t have as strong of a personal connection with Lars and no feelings of guilt to contend with. As I continued to watch the movie, and saw how everyone went above and beyond to accept Bianca and bring her into their world, I found their reactions increasingly unrealistic…but eventually, I decided that this was a strength of the film, not a weakness. The film gave us enough realism with Lars himself and the way his family reacted to the emergence of his disability. The way the townspeople accepted and embraced him is not the way the world usually works, but it’s the way the world should be, and the film showed that without being preachy.
What I loved most about this movie was the simple fact that Lars’s story was Lars’s story. It offered us a glimpse into the mind of a person with a disability, a goodhearted person with a different way of looking at the world, without turning it into a preachy “message” film. Too many stories about disability have an undercurrent “Look at the way the life of this disabled person can Teach Us Able-Bodied-And-Minded-People a Lesson About Ourselves!” theme. This movie felt more like a different twist on a coming-of-age story, with an atypical, lovable protagonist.