Saturday, May 10, 2008

Lars and the Real Girl (2007)

To be kind neither hurts nor compromises. -- George MacDonald; "God's Family." Hope of the Gospel
The above quote has been in my commonplace book for many years. There are days when I think is true. There are days when I think it, like the more often quoted "Love means never having to say you're sorry," is not just wrong but 180 degrees wrong. As I grow older, the former days begin to outnumber the latter. I tend, more and more, to think of kindness less in terms of the painful putting to death of the old, fallen self, less as the thing that has been tried and found wanting, and more as the thing that has been found hard and not tried.

Lars and the Real Girl
is a sweet film that gets a lot of emotional mileage out of showing people being kind. It is a film in which people are loving for no other reason than they can be and where they choose to be compassionate rather than cruel because doing the former seldom costs more than the latter.

I've recently ranted in the rant threads about Dan in Real Life and how shabbily it treats and depicts some of its supporting characters. Lars and the Real Girl is a film that trusts its audience enough that it doesn't have to make you like the protagonist by making everyone else a jerk. There's an unwritten rule in the ATK blog that you can't complain about the NCAA not putting your team in the field of 64 or the Academy not nominating a film without saying which team or film it should replace. I'm not sure that Lars and the Real Girl is Oscar material, but I will say I prefer it vastly over the smug, self-satisfied and condescending Juno and I do so for precisely the reason given above. The people who occupy this film, who move in and out of Lars's circle, while not perfect, are decent, if occasionally flawed or scarred, folks that the film allows us to like as much as Lars. Lars and the Real Girl recognizes what I don't think Juno does--that love is not a zero-sum game, that we don't necessarily nor instinctively care less about who and what the film most wants us to care about simply because there are other things besides those things in the film that might warrant our respect and appreciation. So many films fear we will get lost and never work our way back to the star, the protagonist, the hero, and thus strip the world he or she occupies of anything good, or beautiful, or admirable, making us cling to the protagonist not because he or she draws us, but because like Private Mayo in An Officer and a Gentleman, "[We ] got no place else to go."

In fact, the community is the hero of Lars and the Real Girl. I can't think of the last commercial, American film I saw that presented community as a positive force (at least that wasn't doing so ironically or satirically). Compare the doctor here to the technician in Juno. Compare the pastor and his community here to the one in There Will Be Blood. Compare the portrayal of businesses (like the merchant who gives Bianca a part time job) to that of Michael Clayton. Compare the film's take on the possibility for healing, growth, or forgiveness with that of Atonement.

I know, I know, this film is a fantasy and those other films are realism. If Sheriff Bell wandered over to Lars's neck of the woods he'd find it a fine country for old men, and we, like Lars, know that in another world called reality land, love hurts, innocence is met with scorn and contempt, not tenderness and compassion, that kindness is often compromise and the only reason it seldom hurts is because we generally only ever practice it from a safe distance.

Maybe it is the responsibility of art or film to hold a mirror up to the world and show us the cold, hard, truth.

Or maybe, just maybe, on a rare occasion, a film can do something even harder. Maybe, now and again, it can show us the more excellent way, the way that things should be, the way things are beneath the surfaces hardened by cynicism, and scorn, and just plain old weariness.

It's not a perfect film by any means. The 911 call didn't work for me--the hospital seemed too big for the sort of small town where this might happen (with a little suspended disbelief), and I'm not sure that ambulances and hospitals would just play along given the costs of these services and the need to be on call for actual emergencies. I'm still not sure that virtue isn't gendered a bit too much in the film, though that might be true to its theme in that men are perhaps more uncomfortable expressing kindness than women because of cultural norms associating it [falsely] with weakness, which makes those practicing it appear [or feel] less masculine. It might not even be a great film, though given how often that word is lobbied about, I'm not sure it it doesn't have streaks of greatness in it.

Or perhaps I'm just being too kind to the film.


Seth H. said...

Hi...I've never been to your blog before, but I got the link from Jeffrey Overstreet, so blame him.

While I agree with all your thoughts on Lars and the Real Girl, I just wanted to say something about Juno: most of the characters in that film are decent people as well. Sure, they're not small town salt-of-the-earth types like in Lars, but I still think you're shortchanging them a bit. The only two characters that are deliberately vilified are the ultrasound technician and Mark, and even Mark doesn't start out that way. And the technician played the "bad guy" not because the scene needed an antagonist to make Juno look good, but because the scene needed to show how much Bren cared about her step-daughter. Juno's family and friends are all lovable, well-meaning characters, or at least that's what I got from them.

I'm not chewing you out or anything, just offering a different perspective.

Kenneth R. Morefield said...

Hi Seth. Thanks for your comment and no offense taken.

I'll concede at the outset that I'm in the minority opinion about Juno, both in terms of its overall quality and the methods it uses to score points with its audience. It's likewise true that dichotomy I've presented (loving, supportive community represented by secondary characters and onlookers vs. "good" hero and "bad" everyone else) represent two ends of a pole. While we could debate which pole Juno is closer to, I'll similarly concede what I think to be your central point, which is it belongs somewhere in the middle rather than at the opposite end of the pole from Lars.

There may be a small distinction to be made between supporting characters and the representation of community. While I agree that Juno shows some people who are basically good in that they try (and at times succeed) to act in a loving manner, I also felt like there was this overwhelming tone of "me [or us] vs. them" in the film. And the them was not merely those who treated "me" disrespectfully [Juno spends most of the film treating others disrespectfully] but those who didn't agree that "I" am this special, unique person who is above criticism or reproach.

I guess what I'm saying is I felt the technician was not so much an isolated character but meant to be symbolic or representative of everyone who was not in Juno's inner circle--her only difference was that she (accidentally or intentionally) verbalized what "they" were all thinking. (I might put Bleecker's mom in this category too, but it's been awhile since I've seen the film.) There is a scene replayed in the trailer where Juno is walking down the hallway of school and the sea of bodies part. I don't think it is unfair to say that this scene also represents not just that Juno is swimming against the tide but that there is a certain antipathy towards her outside her inner circle that she must struggle with on a day to day level.

Juno is about (and directed towards, I think) a younger audience, one that already and instinctively often feels alienated from and by the larger community. And heck, if all movies were like Lars and the Real Girl, I'd probably rail against the lack of realism it that films never showed other people as a cruel and destructive force. So I see Juno as part of a trend but certainly not the most egregious example of that trend, and I'm happy to let people enjoy or appreciate it in spite of my own preferences.

Anonymous said...

While most people think that the community is unrealistic, and certainly you don't see the entire community, I spent several of my growing-up years in a very small town. There were numerous acts of kindness expressed to members of the community that Lars reminded me of. There was a single mom with a daughter that frequently went to school unwashed and with head lice. The owner of the local beauty shop would nab the young girl on her way to school and treat her to a good shampoo. She didn't have to - she was just a kind soul. Then there was the family with five children whose parents were both unemployed alcoholics. They lived in a condemned house behind a barbed wire fence beside the railroad tracks. Yet, because the community looked out for the kids, they never were unclothed, unwashed, or unfed. In their junior high and high school years, the more capable of the children held positions as cheerleaders, first string athletes, and class presidents. That was the fruit of a kind and compassionate community.

All that to say, Lars is one of my favorite films ever! It reflects the good, the true and the beautiful.