Sunday, August 9, 2009

Lars and the Real Girl - Second Viewing

(Originally posted in August 2008)

How do you show your friends you love them? What words do you use? What actions do you take? What objects in your life take on a meaning bigger than intended? “Lars and the Real Girl” is about how families, neighbors, and friends cope with mental illness. But “Lars and the Real Girl” is also about so much more.

Lars is an introvert on the far end of the scale who avoids contact with others as much as possible. However, things change when Lars tells his brother and sister in law (his neighbors) that he has met someone – a woman. The problem is, that woman happens to be a sex doll named “Bianca.”

The movie is advertised in a way to make you assume it is (yet) another film about a quirky guy/girl whom the world just doesn’t get. Even the back of the box makes it seem like it is a romantic story about finding true love, as though “Lars” is a sort of off beat romantic comedy. However, this is not a flat, callous movie with alienating “catch-phrase-catch-quirk” characters (like Napolean Dynamite or Juno). Lars is different. It takes its characters and themes way below the surface.

“Lars” works on multiple levels. Many people have wondered what therapy would be like if they went. Look no further than here. Patricia Clarkson’s character is written and acted so well (playing both an MD and a therapist – which is true of smaller towns), that I felt as though I was peering in on a master therapist at work. For example, many of us might ask Lars about Bianca and try to "fix" or understand the problem. However, when Lars is first presented to the therapist, she doesn’t ask. She lets Lars tell her when he is ready. Her focus is on her professional, yet intimate relationship with Lars. She is not concerned with hurriedly fixing a “problem.”

Second, Lars’s family reaction and coping to his diagnosis is very real. When they are told what Lars has, one member wants to fix it right away. “How long does this illness last?” “What medicine can he take that will change him quickly?” “Won’t this be embarrassing?” The other simply asks, “How can we help?” It is a perfect response to someone in crisis. Watching not only the family, but the town characters love Lars is a workable template for how we can respond to those in crisis.

This is where the film got unrealistic to me. There is no way that a large group of people could love someone so much. On my first viewing, this ruined the movie for me because I assumed it was asking me to simply “watch” a silly movie. However, on my second viewing, the film simply asked “what if?” What if a group of people truly loved so much that they selflessly held and walked with someone without advice giving, “shoulds,” or nagging? There is one powerful line where a character says “That’s what friends do in times of crisis. They sit and they wait.” Job’s comforters are nowhere to be found. "Lars" powerfully shows the viewer how we can love others in times of unknown.

We can simply sit, wait, and listen.

Thematically, “Lars and the Real Girl” can be boiled down to being a movie about love. While there is much to say about this, I most want to comment on another theme of the movie - the theme of attachment. Object Relations Theory therapists must see this film. If you want to better understand Object Relations theory, this film shows how a transitional object can be utilized in place of displaced attachment.

It is important that we consider when we watch the film what the power of individual objects can be for us. This makes Lars condition relatable to the average viewer. While this may seem strange, I would argue that what happens to Lars is something that has happened to you. How many of us can recall a doll, stuffed animal, invisible friend, or other blank object that was real and existing to us? They had no identity and language, save for the way we made them to be. Those objects represented something to us. For Lars, Bianca is his means of dealing with physical touch, grief, and human relationship (among other things). She is blank canvas of emotions and attachment patterns that are unique to Lars.“Bianca” is very much a real person in spite of her plastic frame. She is real because Lars projects onto her what is real to him. He projects onto her a relationship where Bianca is the manifestation of Lars’s reality. For Lars to be that vulnerable and open with real people is too difficult for him.

“Lars and the Real Girl” is funny and painful with a certain tenderness. Perhaps it is because the filmmakers acknowledge that this is because these are what love and relationships at their most real can be: funny, painful, selfless, intimate, etc. When we love one another past our understanding of normal, the power of that love can be more than we really know. “Lars and the Real Girl” gets my highest recommendation.

Questions For Counselors:
1. Recall the sequence where Lars family is told clinically about Lars condition. Did you have any reaction/countertransference to either character?
2. What is the metaphor of Bianca for Lars?
3. How does metaphor and analogy play into your clients behaviors?
4. Object Relations Theory appears to provide a great case conceptualization for Lars symptoms. What would your treatment plan be for this type of a client? Would you incorporate any other theories?
5. Are there any ethical issues for the therapist/M.D?
6. Consider the role of physical touch in Lars treatment. Would you consider this ethical?
7. Consider the way the therapist reveals personal information about herself. Is it appropriate? When is it not appropriate to reveal information about yourself to your clients?

Questions for Viewers:
1. Think of a friend or family member going through an emotionally painful experience. What does the movie say might be helpful in the way you treat others in their pain?
2. Recall the sequence where Lars human love interest first sees Bianca after church. Can you think of a family member who pays more attention to an inanimate object than you (a car, a videogame machine, etc)? Why do you think they give so much attention to that object?
3. When was the last time you felt like someone cared for you in a meaningful way? How did that person show it?
4. When was the last time you attempted to care for someone else in a meaningful way? How did you show it?


  1. Powerful film. A lot of great implications that I think you drew out well in this post. I'm not into the therapy side of things, although I probably should be a bit more since I'm a minister, but the big question that you ask and the movie answers is something the church should be examining.

  2. I have an easy way to show my friends that I love them, but not everyone of them deserves to be named friend so I don't tend to show all my love to all of them. I show my wife my love by using Generic Viagra.