Risking the Hug: An Examination of Sentimentality and Sincerity in Lars and the Real Girl
Daniel Abiva Hunt
January 10, 2024
A writing workshop leader once said to me, “Your characters should never hug.” I took that advice to heart, never allowing my characters to hug, never allowing them to express much emotion to another character or even to the reader. My characters became so cold and closed-off that my stories lacked the emotional connection most of us look for when engaging with works of fiction. I didn’t know how to open my characters up without them hugging, without them expressing some level of sentimentality.
Then I watched the film Lars and the Real Girl, which is a romantic comedy written by Nancy Oliver, starring Ryan Gosling as a socially awkward young man who falls in love with a sex doll.
My writing workshop leader might not have enjoyed Lars and the Real Girl, because in Lars and the Real Girl the characters hug. A lot. I want to examine how Nancy Oliver presents her characters’ sincere emotions in the movie without tripping into over-sentimentality, and how we can use some of her strategies in fiction to create scenarios where characters express sincere emotion without sentimentality by offsetting such emotion through humor or by complicating unoriginal gestures, such as hugs and handholding, by placing them within original scenes.
First, I want to interrogate sentimentality, because, of course, determining if something is sentimental is subjective, or I should say, determining if something is overly sentimental is subjective. Many people adore Hallmark movies for a reason, and to those romantic souls, the movies aren’t overly sentimental; they are properly sentimental. But what does sentimental mean? Of course, the dictionary definition, as it pertains to storytelling, is “dealing with feelings of tenderness, sadness, or nostalgia, typically in an exaggerated and self-indulgent way.” Exaggerated and self-indulgent don’t tell us much, and for me, sentimentality has always been a know-it-when-you-see-it type of thing, or perhaps in fiction, a know-it-when-you-feel-it type of thing or maybe better said a know-it-when-you-don’t-feel-it type of thing. Sentimental language trucks in emotions but often fails to elicit an emotional response from the reader, usually due to some combination of cliché (e.g., the fluttering heart, the melting gaze), overwrought declarations (e.g., “Anakin you’re breaking my heart!”), or common, unoriginal gestures—like a hug.
We hug people all the time, of course, to greet or to express love, so why is a hug sometimes considered sentimental in fiction? Like I said, I think, the gesture is fairly common, and it represents love and appreciation in the real world, and therefore, in the fictional world, it doesn’t have any extra power, any nuance in its representation of emotion. Thus, the reader doesn’t have to do any work to understand what is being said or conveyed between the characters when they hug, which might hold the reader at a distance, all this telling and not showing. Sentimentality, then, is not so much the hug itself; it’s what the hug represents. It’s the way the writer uses the gesture to convey emotions. It’s the tone the writer strives to strike. In other words, it’s the way the story is told. Things get interesting if, for instance, a character hugs someone she despises.
Many of the articles or reviews about Lars and the Real Girl call the movie gentle, pure, sincere, and sweet, and the movie is certainly sentimental in the sense that it deals with sincere feelings and emotions, sadness and tenderness, yet I don’t think the movie verges into over sentimentality, despite the plethora of hugs. I wanted to look at a few places in the screenplay that deal with sincere emotions, and how Nancy Oliver avoids crossing the line into over-sentimentality.
The beginning of the movie focuses on Karin trying to get Lars to join her and Gus for dinner. It’s implied she’s asked him before, and he never shows up, and on page eleven of the screenplay, she finally confronts him, and instead of begging him to come to dinner, pleading with him about how much they miss him, how much they love him, how much they want him to be part of their family, she tackles him to the ground and says “Salmon, rosemary potatoes!” (11). Here, Oliver uses comedy—physical comedy, really, the pregnant woman tackling the starting cornerback for the T.C. Williams Titans—to undercut any sentimentality by conveying the emotions between the characters in an original, totally surprising way, because of course, Karin does declare to Lars how much they miss him, but this earnest declaration is offset by her tackling him to the ground. What could have been a sentimental scene is instead very funny—even as we get the first “hug” between characters in the movie.
Indeed, Oliver uses comedy throughout the story to cut through any sentimentality, and of course, most of the comedy is created through Bianca. That the guy from The Notebook is dating a sex doll is an absurd and original premise that allows Oliver to twist around and complicate what could have been overly sentimental gestures if one of the characters wasn’t, in fact, a sex doll. For example, after the party at Cindy’s house, we see Lars finally loosen up, and the little town begins to accept Bianca, and everything seems to be going magically for Lars, and as he gets into his car after the party, he declares, “That was the best night of my life.” Such an earnest proclamation, in another scene, in another movie, could be too direct, too sincere, and therefore sentimental—but as soon as Lars speaks the line and drives away, Bianca, as the script states, “falls against him like a log” (51). The image of Bianca falling like a log against Lars complicates the otherwise sincere emotion Lars is directly declaring, as we are reminded that, yes, things are looking up, but, yes, that’s Noah Calhoun, and, yes, he’s still in love with a sex doll.
Throughout the movie, the image of Bianca is used for comedic purposes to allow characters to convey sincere emotions without the scenes feeling sentimental, such as when Lars thanks Gus for everything he’s done to help, which might have felt sentimental if not for the fact that Lars was also thanking his brother for bathing his sex doll before bed every night.
It’s also through Bianca that Oliver allows Lars to talk sincerely about himself, his pain, his suffering, his utter loneliness, and all the things he fears, without feeling like we are watching a more cliched scene of therapist and patient, because, of course, Dagmar, the doctor, is, ostensibly, Bianca’s doctor, who just so happens to be a psychologist. The indirectness of the therapy session keeps these scenes between Lars and Dagmar from feeling cliched or overwrought or on-the-nose and therefore from feeling overly sentimental. The two of them discuss Lars’ pain through Bianca, and the backstory he invents for her, with her mother dying in childbirth, her inability to have children, her desire to live a normal life, all of which also apply to Lars.
In these scenes, the sex doll isn’t used comedically; in fact, Bianca is hardly seen in any shot with Lars and Dagmar, which allows those scenes to be more serious, relatively. Instead, Oliver uses the conceit to place Lars in a room with a therapist, and to use Dagmar to open him up slowly, indirectly, in a way that doesn’t feel forced or exaggerated or inauthentic for a quiet, reserved, awkward character like Lars, who might not otherwise open up like this. During one of their scenes together, Dagmar tries to help Lars with his physical aversion to touch, and in doing so, she gets him to hold her hand, a gesture of love as common and unoriginal as a hug. Yet, this scene, to me, doesn’t feel overly sentimental. The gesture here—these two utterly lonely people holding hands—feels sincere, and given the context of the scene, it doesn’t feel common or overwrought or cliched. It feels real. Because, of course, it’s not about the gesture itself. The hand holding or the hugs. It’s about how the gesture is presented. It’s about how the story is told.
There is one scene in the screenplay that I thought veered into the overly sentimental. On page forty, Karin and Margo have a heart-to-heart:
Gus is taking this very hard
Karin is also taking it hard. She starts to cry. Margo tries to comfort her. She seems to know something about sorrow.
We should have known, we should have done something sooner. What’s going to become of him?
Try not to worry, it never changes anything and it won’t help Lars. Tell me about the baby, Do you know if it’s a boy or a girl?
I forgot I was pregnant.
Margo-matter-of-fact, closes the photo album and hugs Karin.
Karin, life goes on. In my experience, you have to find happiness wherever you are, even in the middle of desperate times. You have to be happy and never give up, no matter what.
Her belief in what she says gives Karin strength.
You’re right. At least Lars looks happy now.
See? That’s something.
The women feel more positive.
I could go on about how this scene doesn’t have much complication, as both Karin and Margo convey directly and sincerely how they feel to each other—and, of course, hug. I could say that the scene is unoriginal with its pep-talk about never giving up, and there is no offsetting comedy or humorous imagery, as in other scenes in the movie. I could make the argument that this scene is overly sentimental. But I think all I need to do is point out: the scene was cut from the movie.
What I most admire about Lars and the Real Girl is not how it avoids sentimentality but how it conveys sincere emotion. Nancy Oliver showcases how to convey emotion with characters as closed-off as Lars, by using objects like Bianca, or secondary characters like Dagmar, or settings like the pink room in the childhood home, or landscapes changing from a snowy winter to a clear spring. She also goes for emotion by risking sentimentality, allowing her characters to make earnest declarations of their emotions and to engage in common gestures like holding hands and hugs. She risks this to create moments of complicated and sincere emotions. Sometimes, I think, we all have to risk veering into the sentimental in order to find the real emotion. Sometimes, I think, we all have to risk the hug.