Rejected Files: Bridges All Over

[Hi! Sometimes I write something in response to a specific call for submissions, and when it gets rejected, I’m not sure what to do with it. It wouldn’t necessarily be a good fit for any other publication, and usually it just languishes on my hard drive while I move on to other things.

But I kind of like this essay I wrote about the movie Lars and the Real Girl (2007, directed by Craig Gillespie) so I’m just going to share it directly with y’all. The Rejected Files might even become a regular thing, because my writing gets rejected a lot, y’all!]

“Bridges All Over”

As a feminist, it feels weird to admit that a movie about a man and his sex doll is one of my all-time favorites. After all, throughout the history of art, men have used women as blank canvases onto which they can project their own hopes and insecurities. And in Lars and the Real Girl, we get the story of a man pouring all of his idealized love into an “anatomically correct” inanimate object. Yikes. Some women I know refuse to watch this movie for that reason, and I can’t blame them.

Still, when I first saw Lars in the theater, I couldn’t think along those lines. I was too distracted by Ryan Gosling’s portrayal of Lars: the way he twitches and stumbles through every conversation; the way he hides out in his garage house in terror of his loving sister-in-law Karin; the way he retreats from his sad life into a warm fantasy world. I want to make it clear that I have never owned or been tempted to buy a Real Doll, but in every other facet of Lars’s behavior and emotions, I saw myself so clearly that it was unnerving. It was like director Craig Gillespie had hired a handsome dude to play me for some reason.

The first time we see Lars, he’s staring at his bleak and snowy world through a pane of glass, wrapped in his old baby blanket. What a perfect introduction to a character who is still trapped in his isolated childhood, who both craves love and runs in fear from it. And why not run? At one point, Lars has a panic attack in his doctor’s office. “It’s so dangerous!” he gasps, pacing. He’s talking about Karin’s pending childbirth, but he might as well be talking about life itself. Or maybe just love. People die, people abandon you. It’s all so dangerous.

When Bianca, his custom-designed girlfriend, first arrives in the mail, she seems like a way for Lars to tunnel even farther away from reality. Handing her a bouquet of plastic flowers, he tells her, “They’re not real, so they’ll last forever. Isn’t that neat?” It’s just one of the moments that rips my heart out. (Another is Lars slow dancing by himself at a party, eyes closed, with a dreamy smile on his face.)

What Bianca turns out to be, however, is sort of the opposite of a fantasy. She is Lars’s ticket into real human society. With her at his side, Lars can begin chatting with his brother Gus about their family’s history. He can attend a co-worker’s party. He can let himself fall in love, then courageously suffer the pain of loss.

Like a child, Lars is learning through playacting. He and Bianca go through everything together: the first flush of love; arguments and tension; sickness and death. At the age of twenty-seven, Lars is jumpstarting his adulthood by guiding himself through these intense experiences he’s never allowed himself to have before. At the end of it all, he’s prepared for a potential relationship with the actual real girl of this story. Closing his eyes to work up his courage, he invites his co-worker/love interest Margo on a walk after Bianca’s funeral.

But this isn’t just the story of Lars’s psychological progression. I want to talk about the other people in his hometown. This movie has gotten some criticism for being “unrealistic” in this area. The townspeople embrace Bianca fully, peaking at the point where she falls sick and actual paramedics deliver her to an actual hospital. If that seems unbelievable, that’s because this isn’t a gritty, realistic drama. It’s a parable.

Why else would the movie’s first thesis statement be delivered by a priest? In a church service at the beginning of the story, the priest giving the sermon tells his congregation, “Love one another. That, my friends, is the one true law.” Lars and the Real Girl is a movie about love in all its forms: romance, family, friendship. From Gus’s co-workers who tease him but supportively play along with Lars’s delusion, to the church ladies who sit and knit with Lars while Bianca is sick, this little town in the cold, far North is overflowing with warmth and love.

The second thesis statement is delivered by Dr. Dagmar Bergman, while she tries to explain Lars’s situation to a shellshocked Gus and Karin. They’ve just been introduced to Bianca, and they’re scrambling to decide how to handle their loved one’s apparent nervous breakdown. Dr. Bergman tells them, “What we call mental illness isn’t always just an illness. It can be a communication, or a way to work something out.”

Communication – which is the basis for real love – is the second major theme of this story. In the beginning, Gus, Karin, and Margo are all trying to communicate with Lars in their own languages. Margo is overtly flirty; Gus is confrontational about Bianca; Karin literally tackles Lars to get him to accept a dinner invitation. When they begin to accept the story of Bianca, they also find a way to chat with Lars in his own language. This is what allows him to finally begin laying the groundwork for real human relationships. He agrees to go bowling with Margo and begins spending more with Gus because they are demonstrating their trustworthiness by meeting him where he is.

It’s not just the townspeople who have to do all the learning and compromising. You can’t always meaningfully support someone by going along with anything they say. In one of my favorite scenes, Karin angrily confronts Lars – not about Bianca, but about his bad attitude. Bianca has blown off her and Lars’s Scrabble night to attend a volunteers’ banquet, and Lars is faced with his worst fears: abandonment and loss. He angrily chops wood while giving into self pity, muttering that no one loves him or cares.

Karin won’t stand for that. She begins listing everything the community has done for Bianca – driving her around town, making room for her in their lives – then points out that all of this has been done out of love for Lars. “So don’t you dare tell me that we don’t care!” she says, furious. Lars has no rebuttal to that. He is suitably chagrined.

This scene immediately became lodged in my brain forever because I know exactly what is going through Lars’s head throughout it. I know how loneliness and depression can make you feel no one cares or possibly could care about you. This is not only a sad state of affairs for you, but for everyone in your life who does, in fact, love you. When you’re able to see the situation clearly, you can feel how galling it is to reject that love and support, or to insist that it was never even there. This scene actually left me feeling vaguely ashamed, like Karin had just looked into the camera and called me out.

Loneliness can make anyone go a little nuts. But there are these bridges connecting people’s lives all over. Acknowledge the people around you and learn their language. Build a warm community no matter how harsh the weather outside gets. And love. Love, my friends, is the one true law.

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