Between the Lines is a monthly column discussing everything around the craft of screenwriting: from in-depth breakdowns of screenplays to interviews with screenwriters.
Mental Health plays a big part in our daily lives, so it comes as no surprise that the subject usually becomes a talking point in film. For Mental Health Awareness Month, Between the Lines will be looking at a screenplay that has a positive outlook on Mental Health: Lars and the Real Girl. This indie feature from 2007 sees the titular Lars develop a romantic relationship with a sex doll to overcome his loneliness and find true love. The film made some noise during awards season with Ryan Gosling’s leading performance receiving nominations and Nancy Oliver, who wrote the screenplay, receiving nominations for her script from the Academy Awards and the Writer’s Guild. So what was so special about Oliver’s screenplay that resonated with critics?
The screenplay isn’t too long, with the final page count at 101, but Oliver still manages to establish the world, the characters, the inciting incident and the plot within fifteen pages. Even after telling the audience all of that information Oliver successfully pulls off the most important aspect of these fifteen pages: understanding the world from Lars’ perspective.
On the first page Lars’ garage apartment is established but it is here on the second page we see the main characteristic that defines Lars: he is a genuinely caring man even though he finds it difficult to connect with people. Lars wants to make sure his pregnant sister-in-law is healthy and safe but can only do so at a distance. This page also establishes that Lars not only avoids physical interactions (‘She reaches to touch him, he takes a little step back’) but also avoids social events: changing the subject to the baby when Karin asks Lars to come over for breakfast and Karin making him promise to do so suggests that he has failed to accept the invitation before.
Two pages later and Oliver establishes the protagonist’s desire: to get a girlfriend. Having the topic of not having a girlfriend bringing Lars pain tells us love will make him happy but the fact he struggles with human connection gives the screenplay the main obstacle.
Only a few pages later, and after establishing Lars’ desire, we have the inciting incident on page eight that propels Lars on the journey to achieve his goal of getting a girlfriend: by purchasing a sex doll. Because we are familiar with Lars and his character, we can almost pick out the words that would have stood out to Lars himself. Hearing things about the doll being “real” and that you can “design your own woman” means Lars can get a girlfriend that is perfectly suited for him without having to change.
Over on page ten we learn more about Lars but also learn more about his desire. The script isn’t exactly subtle in telling us how Lars feels about his relationship with Margo. He wants to talk to Margo but simply can’t: linking back to the obstacle he must overcome, communicating with people, whilst developing his desire of getting a girlfriend; not just any woman but Margo. This is all reinforced nicely by Lars trying to calm himself by using a method that has been suggested in the past to usually work, but which this time fails to change anything.
A few pages along on page thirteen we begin exploring a key relationship in the story: Lars and his older brother Gus. The lack of conversation at the beginning of the scene immediately highlights how distant they are with each other and how they find it difficult to communicate with one another. The discussion quickly turns to the topic of their parents: Lars’ ‘vehemence’ telling us he didn’t have the best relationship with their father and the dialogue telling us Lars wished he knew her mother, before and after her death. The family issues all play into Lars’ character and into the relationship he has with Gus.
Finally on page fifteen Oliver caps off everything we know about Lars and his struggle with loneliness: heading back to his ‘dark apartment’ whilst Karen and Gus, who are ‘in each other’s arms’ and having intimate physical contact, are a ‘million miles away’.
Oliver gets the audience to understand exactly how Lars behaves and feels in such a short amount of pages. We are introduced to this caring man who finds himself lonely due to his struggles of communicating with others. His objective is clear: to overcome his fear of communication and physical touch and get a girlfriend. Even though the screenplay sets up Margo as the one Lars wants to have a relationship with, the idea of having a sex doll could be a quick fix for him – which of course kickstarts the main plot and conflict.
The brilliant thing about the whole screenplay, and what is made apparent in these fifteen pages, is the tone of the story. Looking at the world through Lars’ eyes means we completely understand mentally what is going on. We empathize with Lars as a fleshed out character who has human struggles. If the screenplay was written from the perspective of a different character we would view Lars as a strange man with some sort of mental illness, much like Gus initially does. Oliver continues the sincerity towards Lars by having the characters play along with his delusion of having a real relationship with Bianca the sex doll. Any conflict between Lars and another character isn’t because of Bianca but because of Lars and his shifting personality. The townsfolk love Lars for who he is and know Lars can do better when he sometimes acts irrational. Oliver’s screenplay never plays Lars’ mental health for cheap laughs and turns his situation into a positive catalyst for the town who all go along with the situation and actually see Bianca as a real person.
Lars and the Real Girl as a script does a wonderful job of getting the audience to empathize with a protagonist early on in the story but the whole narrative is a positive example of what could be if we all treat each other, regardless of their mentality, with sincerity.
The screenplay can be found at: https://www.scribd.com/doc/199136378/Lars-and-the-Real-Girl-Script