“Man buys a sex doll on the internet” is an unlikely premise for a sweet, affecting and life-affirming story, but this quirky movie with early-day Ryan Gosling (before the world decided he was hot) somehow pulls it off.
Gosling plays Lars Lindstrom, a painfully shy and troubled young man who functions well enough in the world to keep an office job, but can’t tolerate being touched by another person. In the evenings after work, he sits all alone in a cabin near his family home, now occupied by his gruff brother Gus (Paul Schneider) and pregnant sister-in-law Karin (Emily Mortimer). Despite Karin’s best efforts to coax Lars out of his shell, he manages to avoid her dinner invitations with one flimsy excuse after another.
One day, Karin and Gus get a surprise visit from Lars, who wants to introduce them to his new girlfriend… a life-sized plastic doll named Bianca ordered from an adult website. To Lars however, she’s a paraplegic former missionary of Brazilian and Danish descent who he met on a dating site. He explains that since they’re both devoted Christians, it would be improper for Bianca to stay in the cabin with him, so could Karin and Gus spare her a bedroom?
Mortified Gus thinks that Lars belongs in a mental institution, but Karin wouldn’t hear of it; they settle on arranging a visit to Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson), a family doctor who also doubles as a psychologist in their small town. Under the guise of “treating” Bianca, Dagmar gets to have personal sessions with Lars, and she also advises Karin and Gus to let Lars live with his fantasy. They go one step further by enlisting the help of the rest of their community, who all agree to treat Bianca as if she was a real person, actively involving her in the town’s social life and volunteer work, to a surreal effect. This easy acceptance might understandably strike some viewers as implausible, but to me the film conveyed enough of the close-knit small town feeling to sell it.
Though Bianca comes fully equipped with the plastic lady parts, the film sidesteps the potential ickiness of the scenario by implying that Lars never uses her for sex. Christian propriety aside, Bianca is a perfect girlfriend for Lars because she can never touch him or make demands on him. And yet, weirdly enough, this clearly delusional relationship with a doll represents a positive step forward, allowing Lars to make a tentative move towards finding love and engage with the world and other people in the way he never has before, with Bianca as the bridge. The affection that the rest of the townsfolk come to feel for Bianca also rings true; though most of us wouldn’t go quite as far as dating plastic dolls, it’s after all a very human thing to imbue inanimate objects with qualities and feelings they can’t realistically have, even after we exit childhood.
There are so many ways in which this movie could have gone so horribly wrong that it’s a miracle it works as well as it does. It resists the temptation of easy sex jokes, choosing instead to tell a story about loneliness, empathy, sibling ties and community spirit. Gosling’s sensitive and sincere performance is the key here: while Lars’ behaviour is undoubtedly strange, he’s never creepy and there’s a real warmth and innocence to his character.