Movie-ology Part 2 (Grace)

I'm a movie guy. I will shamelessly confess I love the escape one finds on the other side of a movie screen. Can you blame me though? In movies we can fly, traverse space, wave wands, save entire worlds from evil forces and buckle swash with the best of them! There's really no feeling like it. As I read Craig Detweiler's Into the Dark: Seeing the Sacred in the Top Films of the 21st Century I am confronted by the notion that God might be speaking to me, and you as well, through the characters and stories of film, and I have resolved to take a closer look at some of my favorite movies in order to see what elements of God's truth may be thinly veiled beneath their Hollywood exteriors. I will address a particular "theological" theme for each film I review, themes vital to the films discussed but also close to my own heart, and I'd thank you to come along on the ride with me.



Allow me to describe the parts of this movie and you tell me how appealing it sounds:. A mentally-ill young man buys a sex doll and appears to legitimately believe "she" is his real-life lover, presenting her for the community as his girlfriend, much to the chagrin of his brother and sister-in-law. And that's about it. Sounds either like a dark psychological thriller in which he then kills his friends and neighbors and stitches them together in his basement, or a farcical sex comedy in which, well, sex happens, doesn't it? It sure doesn't sound like the sweetest movie you could ever hope to see though, right? Funny how these things work, because that's exactly what it turned out to be. 

Lars follows its eponymous hero as he isolates himself from friends, family and co-workers due to some deep-seated emotional issues following the deaths of his parents. His brother and sister-in-law (played by the heart-warmingly sincere Paul Schneider and Emily Mortimer) become distressed at his apparent social dysfunctions and attempt to reach out to him, just as he withdraws further and further into his phobias and anxieties. For a moment they seem to notice a positive change in his behavior, only to realize he has bought a sex doll and appears to have deluded himself into believing "she" (Bianca) is a living, breathing woman, and that they are quite in love. So much more than the sum of its parts, this movie is touching and heartfelt, thanks in large part to its talented, lovable cast, helmed by the incomparable Ryan Gosling.

My sister, my cousin and I have followed Ryan Gosling's career for some time. Yes, long before the days of abs and political intrigue, even before the Notebook, he held a place in our hearts as "Dancey Boy" Alan Bosley from Remember the Titans (a nickname we assigned him). Watching Gosling become such a star has been almost surreal, but we relish it because, at the risk of sounding like hipsters, we liked him first. He was goofy and affable in Titans (the greatest of all football films) and watching him try and be sexy nowadays is funny. This is not to say he isn't a legitimately talented actor, mind you, because he really is. He has a quiet intensity about him Tony compares to Marlon Brando (I wouldn't know), and it's a testament to his skill he can embody such diverse characters when the need presents itself. In any case, after watching him be either the hunk or the intensely brooding, well, uh, hunk in every movie for the last few years, it was delightful to see him in Lars playing a role closer to the goofy spirit of his character in Titans. 

At the same time though, this role, and the film as a whole, strike some heartbreaking notes as well. In it we see richly human characters relating to each other out of their own brokenness. We see pain, dysfunction, unhealth and vulnerability, but we also see sacrifice, the importance of relationship and community, and a dozen other themes so close-to-home they are at times bordering on the uncomfortable. As in all great movies, in Lars we see truths about ourselves, about our lives, our assumptions, our beliefs, hopes and dreams. This is a movie about real people who cope with real hurt in bizarre, but not wholly unreal ways. And one of the more profound truths I see communicated through its narrative is one not only near and dear to my heart but also central to the Christian message. It is the beautifully absurd notion of Grace.

Before I say more about that, allow me to confess something: some days I wonder why I'm a Christian. Striking as this may sound, it's completely true. Sometimes I feel so set-adrift, so on-the-outside I can't help but wonder if the fantastical Christian story is actually true for me at all. I hardly ever doubt the faith on intellectual grounds, mind you. No, my quandaries are always more personal, more emotional. In the words of one my heroes in the faith Donald Miller:

"I don’t believe I will ever walk away from God for intellectual reasons. Who knows anything anyway? If I walk away from Him, and please pray that I never do, I will walk away for social reasons, identity reasons, deep emotional reasons, the same reasons that any of us do anything."

Some days I just don't feel like it's all true, I don't feel like being a Christian. It's really hard and involves trusting someone other than myself. So on those days I strip it all down, start from scratch. I never really "leave" the fold, I just sort of wonder in my petulant little mind if I were to choose my faith over again from the bargain bin, would I choose Christianity at all? Does it offer anything none of the other religions could? And on those days I always discover the same truth: yes, the Christian story is unique in ways elegant, profound and true, and chief among these is its teachings on Grace. 

After all, the point of every other religion I've encountered is to be good enough to achieve righteousness in order to reach God. "Religion" in this sense is about human goodness. Christianity, on the other hand, is about God's goodness. The Christian story admits humans cannot achieve pure righteousness on their own, so in it, God reaches down. God behaves in ways totally unbefitting of God just to woo us and to love us. This is Grace.

Some define Grace as unmerited favor, or "getting what you don't deserve," but it is so much more. It is the backdrop of all God's interactions with humankind. It is the promise that, though we are messy and have turned our backs on God, God will not only continue to love us, God will pursue us, come down, and set things right. Grace is not logical. Grace is not "fair" in the way we typically think of fairness. It is much better. It is scandalous and beautiful.

Lars and the Real Girl is not about Grace discussed, or Grace studied. It is about Grace lived, Grace embodied, Grace incarnate (with meat on). Lars' loved ones do not understand his mania. They are equally concerned and disturbed when he exhibits affection for an inanimate object. Rather than shaming him, though, or forcing him to heal as they assume he ought to, they do something miraculously counter-intuitive and in fact a bit subversive: they love him. They do not force him to come out into their world of logic, they allow him to indwell his illusion and love him in it and through it.

God bless his therapist (the always-lovely Patricia Clarkson) for advising his family to allow him his weirdness, for had they attempted to shake him loose from it, they may well have lost him for good. Mental illness is tricky that way. Instead, though, we see even Lars' brother Gus, who initially has no patience for his brother's shenanigans, realizing he loves Lars enough to bear the potential scorn of the community in accepting his eccentricity. The marvelous twist, though, is the community too is in on the Grace game. Everyone allows Lars his healing space, his healing mechanism, though truth be told it is not Bianca's presence that heals Lars. The community loving him in spite of his messiness is what heals him. Radical love is the only thing that has ever changed hearts. There is no exception to this rule.

Lars is hurting, broken, searching for a source of healing, and he is not alone. He is not some lunatic out on the fringes of society, he is a sick man, just as we too are sick with our own delusions. We mistakenly believe stuff will make us feel whole, sex will make us more alive, drugs will numb us so we don't have to feel our hearts falling apart. And God does not shame us for believing these lies. Out of the patience of God's heart, God just loves the radical love. God meets us in our delusions and begins to coax us out of them simply by telling us we're precious, we're wonderful, we're worth the world and more. Grace does not condemn us for being sick, it simply offers us an environment in which we may heal.

Not only is Grace not offended by our weakness, it is "made perfect" in our weakness (2 Corinthians 12:8-9). We experience God's perfection in spite of, and because of our weaknesses. You couldn't make this stuff up if you tried. In Grace God is screaming how much God cares, just as Lars' sister-in-law Karin screams when he can't seem to wrap his mind around it:

Lars: You don't care. 
Karin: We don't care? We do care! 
Lars: No you don't. 
Karin: That is just not true! God! Every person in this town bends over backward to make Bianca feel at home. Why do you think she has so many places to go and so much to do? Huh? Huh? Because of you! Because - all these people - love you! We push her wheelchair. We drive her to work. We drive her home. We wash her. We dress her. We get her up, and put her to bed. We carry her. And she is not petite, Lars. Bianca is a big, big girl! None of this is easy - for any of us - but we do it... Oh! We do it for you! So don't you dare tell me how we don't care. 
[walks into house and slams door

Grace makes life worth it. I need a God who says yes even though I'm messy. Ideally I'd find a community to embrace me in the same way, like Lars did. Who knows, maybe some day. In the meantime, I know I have at least the Grace of God, and it is enough. It is sufficient. God's grace is sufficient, what a crazy idea.

Dear Lord,

Thank You for Grace. Thank You for loving us even when we don't deserve it, especially when we don't deserve it. Thank You for people who tolerate our weirdness, and who loves us in spite of it, or perhaps because of it. I pray God You would provide for us relationships that teach us about grace, and that we may always be gracious presences in the lives of those we love, those we know and even those we meet. Help us learn how to live in Your economy of Grace rather than according to this world's economy of transaction, security and consumption. Teach us a better way God.

In Jesus' name,

Lars: I was hoping winter was over. 
Margo: No, it's just a thaw - winter isn't over till Easter. 


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