In 2007’s Lars and the Real Girl, the titular Lars (Ryan Gosling), asks his brother Gus (Paul Schneider) when his brother knew he was a man. Gus can’t exactly figure out an answer, having trouble recalling a moment when he realized he was no longer a child. Lars asks if it was sex that helped Gus reach maturity, and Gus says that was part of it, but still, that’s not exactly the answer. After another scene Gus picks up the conversation, finally with the answer Lars was near demanding, but very politely demanding. He says:
“It's not like you're all one thing or the other. There's still a kid inside. But you grow up when you decide to do right. Not what's right for you, what's right for everybody. Even when it hurts.”
Gus goes on to name specific examples of doing what’s right, like not cheating on your significant other or treating others with respect. What it boils down to is “mature people are selfless.” Children are inherently selfish, they only know the world as it revolves around themselves; they are naturally very solipsistic. Growth involves the knowledge that your pleasure and pain aren’t the only things that matter, and that isn’t the same age for everybody.
Lars and the Real Girl centers on Lars, a man who is so isolated and lonely he develops a delusion when he orders a sex doll named Bianca. He believes that she is speaking to him and that they are falling in love; Gus and his wife Karin (Emily Mortimer) are told by a pediatric doctor/therapist to just go along with the delusion, and eventually, the entire town is working to make Bianca feel welcome. By the film’s end, Lars grows out of the delusion, ready to become truly connected with other people.
The audience is meant to believe that Lars is simply a large child in the way he behaves. He still keeps the baby blanket his mother gave him, he doesn’t date or have sex, and he lives in Gus and Karin’s garage. He chooses isolation for himself, he wants to avoid others and keep to himself. It worries Karin so much that she bends over backward to help him feel happy with Bianca, even if he grows increasingly angrier with his doll.
But Lars is not a child, and he doesn’t particularly act like one. In one of the earliest scenes in the movie, after attending his church sermon, he helps Mrs. Grunner (Nancy Beatty) with getting flowers in her car, immediately showing his kindness. But he finds more intimate interactions terrifying; physical touch causes him literal pain. It’s not that he’s self-obsessed, he’s just shy and scared. He’s always been grown, always an adult, just afraid of what that means.
In college, I feel that most of us are trying very hard to “grow up.” We want to be seen as adults, as capable individuals that know how to take care of ourselves. In high school and even middle school, we have these certain ideas of what it means to be grown. For many of the people I went to school with, being “grown” involved underage and illegal drinking/doing drugs, having sex, going to parties and clubs where they definitely weren’t welcome, and being as reckless as possible. To be an adult meant doing whatever gets a movie an R-rating, or an album that “Parental Advisory” sticker.
What I’m sure many of us have realized after graduation is that that isn’t exactly what makes people adults. I still see many freshmen and sophomores trying to go to parties and get wasted every night, and if that makes them happy, then who’s to stop them? But it’s when you really talk with the older people around you that you see that growing means taking care of yourself and others. It’s about helping your friends work through their break-ups, cooking dinner for yourself, understanding your limits and setting boundaries; in lots of ways it’s not something that’s easily seen, but it’s felt. Becoming an adult isn’t about being reckless until you’re thirty and then having back problems, it’s all about changing.
I know that I myself have always felt immature compared to those around me because I never wanted my life to have that R-rating. It’s never appealed to me, so when everyone around me started growing up by dating people that were bad for them or driving their cars to school even when they lived two blocks away, I felt like I was behind them. It took a lot of introspection to realize that that was never the case; adults around me considered me very mature, because I understood how to handle emotions and speak with nuance. I was always grown in that sense.
Lars and the Real Girl hit very close to home for me. Upon immediately finishing it, I felt like a terrible person, because I was Gus; we both left home as fast as we could, not realizing we were leaving our families behind. I came to Ithaca to be far away from my home, because to me adults are supposed to be far from their family. Gus left Lars behind with a deeply depressed father and no mother, leading Lars to remain shy, quiet, and deprived of real love. But I understand that in a lot of ways I connect to Lars, simply because we’ve always been mature, but we’ve never felt it.
The movie has a simple message: you can grow when you’re ready. Lars was always a mature person, but he needed to become comfortable with others. The delusion of Bianca helps him grow when he wants to. When the delusion falls apart, when Bianca (spoilers) “dies,” it’s because he’s ready for her to. He becomes ready to become fully grown, to accept others into his world. Lars grows on his terms, and I think we should let more people grow when they’re ready and not when we tell them to.