The Fragile Humanity of "Lars and the Real Girl": A case study in portraying and treating loneliness
In the critically acclaimed film Lars and the Real Girl (2007), the impressively talented Ryan Gosling plays Lars Lindstrom, a painfully shy recluse who has trouble connecting with people on every level. Although the 27-year-old man holds down an office job and attends church, he can barely stand the touch of another human being and spends most of his time alone, sitting in a cabin located in the backyard of his family home that is occupied by his brother Gus, skillfully played by Paul Schneider, and pregnant sister-in-law Karin, beautifully portrayed by Emily Martimer. Though the couple tries to invite him into their lives, their efforts prove unsuccessful, that is, unit Lars’ pornography-loving co-worker brings his attention to a customizable, vinyl, sex doll he found on the internet. Then, everything begins to change.
Bianca, as she comes to be known, is a very real person in the troubled mind of Lars Lindstrom. Bathing, dressing, and feeding her, the doll becomes his companion as he takes her everywhere he goes: to church, to the store, to the park, and so on. While the small midwestern town in which he lives is, at first, alarmed by the peculiar behavior of the mild-mannered Lars, it eventually rallies around him as the people realize she can be the very thing Lars needs to find some kind of companionship and emerge from his self-perpetuated isolation. While the story could, in every way, disintegrate into some kind of sexual fantasy, the remarkable writing of Nancy Oliver, whose incredible imagination earned her an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay for this film, never crosses that line; Lars and Biana maintain a platonic, co-dependent relationship.
As the film evolves, we learn that Lars’ constitution was affected by a number of monumental events, the effects of which rippled for years: his mother passed while giving him birth, causing his father to withdraw into himself and become a ghost in the lives of his children; his brother decided to go out on his own as early as he could, leaving Lars to experience a profound sense of loneliness that hindered his social development even further. Though we know Lars is a product of circumstance, he also seems to have a sensitive temperament that makes it hard for him to deal with the opinions and expectations of others. Both nature and nurture appear to have failed him in this regard. Lars drifts through life alone, until he finds Biana, a vessel he uses to steer his ship to land and make human contact. The film is an incredibly nuanced exploration of the human condition, but the gist of the story, as it turns out, is as old as time.
Ovid’s “Pygmalion” in his magnum opus Metamorphisis written in 8 C.E. is not history’s first, but perhaps its most famous, example of a story featuring a figurine designed — in one way or another — by its creator that somehow becomes their animated companion. Its time stamp, though, indicates that people have been contemplating similar ideas for thousands of years. In the celebrated work, Ovid (43 B.C.E. - 17 C.E.) “relates that Pygmalion, a sculptor, makes an ivory statue representing his ideal of womanhood and then falls in love with his own creation, which he names Galatea; the goddess Venus brings the statue to life in answer to his prayer.” Ovid was said to be influenced by Apollonius of Rhodes (late 200 B.C.E. - early 200 B.C.E.), who wrote Argonautica, where he mentions Talos, “the man of bronze,” who was either forged by Hephaestus at the request of Zeus, or is a descendant “of the men sprung from ash-trees.”
There are many other examples from antiquity, but there are also numerous reincarnations of Ovid’s work, too. Perhaps one of the best known is the beloved story of Pinocchio. The Adventures of Pinocchio: The Story of a Puppet is a classic children’s novel written by Carlo Collodi (1826 - 1890) that first appeared in serial form in 1881 in the Children’s Magazine and subsequently published as a book in 1883. It tells the story of the little mischievous marionette — carved out of a talking log by a poor and lonely man named Geppetto — who wants to be a real boy. The fact that Pinocchio, Bianca and, in a way, Galatea are all toys may be significant. “Toys play a crucial role in developing an emotional connection with oneself. They are companions but they can also be fantasy-fulfilling proxies: in fact, they’re a child’s first taste of freedom, enabling them to determine the trajectory of someone’s existence.”
Loneliness, defined as the gap between the social connections you would like to have and those you feel you experience, is becoming a full-fledged epidemic in its own right. "There is robust evidence that social isolation and loneliness significantly increase risk for premature mortality, and the magnitude of the risk exceeds that of many leading health indicators," states Julianne Holt-Lunstad, PhD, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brigham Young University. Though Lars is a man in his prime, loneliness is experienced most frequently by elders and youngsters. To help alleviate the problem, “Hasbro has partnered with researchers and scientists at Brown University’s Humanity-Centered Robotics Initiative (HCRI) to study ways the toymaker’s Joy for All robotic companion pets can provide comfort and companionship.”
But the young, the elderly, and the troubled are not the only groups that experience bouts of life-threatening loneliness. Some of the most resilient people are also susceptible. “While it goes without saying that the physical, mental and emotional well-being and endurance of astronauts are higher than normal people and they are better trained to tackle the most grueling situations,” writes Aditya Chaturvedi for Geospatial World, “this, however, doesn’t grant them any immunity from stress-related disorders, anxiety, loneliness, weariness or depression.” As such, Dr. Takanori Shibata, chief scientist at Japan’s National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST), created PARO, a unique non-interventionist device modeled on a baby seal and enabled with AI that “has a visible impact on stress reduction, relaxing patients, stimulating interaction and improving the socialization of patients.”
At this time, there are many different types of research that explore how objects, and toys in particular, can help combat the loneliness epidemic when given certain traits and characteristics. Lars, as we find out in the film, is a patient of his town’s most reputable psychologist who is treating his mental state under the guise of helping Bianca cope with her unmanageable shyness. Though the film was made in 2007, she arrives at the same conclusion as Julianne Holt-Lunsta, Dr. Takanori Shibata, and the countless other scientists, researchers, and theorists working on combating loneliness. By allowing him to project his insecurities onto a toy, he slowly gains a sense of self, independence, and confidence, all of which were desperately lacking in his life until the day he met Bianca. It’s the sincerity of Gosling's astounding performance that tugs at the soul; that, and the perceived fragile humanity of his inanimate co-star.
Note* Film poster for Lars and the Real Girl | Copyright 2007, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer