Helmer Craig Gillespie's sweetly off-kilter film plays like a Coen brothers riff on Garrison Keillor's "Lake Woebegone" tales, defying its lurid premise with a gentle comic drama grounded in reality.

When a socially awkward small-town bachelor introduces an anatomically correct silicone doll as his girlfriend, the local community ultimately responds with surprising compassion in “Lars and the Real Girl.” Helmer Craig Gillespie’s sweetly off-kilter film plays like a Coen brothers riff on Garrison Keillor’s “Lake Woebegone” tales, defying its lurid premise with a gentle comic drama grounded in reality. Although well-acted by a name cast, the offbeat subject matter and idiosyncratic tone make it arthouse material. Skedded for a limited release Stateside, it should have a longer life in ancillary, and could serve as a niche item for offshore distribs.

The underlying theme of “Six Feet Under” scribe Nancy Oliver’s script — how a damaged person comes to terms with past traumas and grows into adult responsibilities — may feel familiar, but what’s fresh and charming is the way the characters surrounding the protagonist also grow as they help him through his crisis.

Set in an unspecified, snowbound place in the northern Midwest that feels a lot like Minnesota (although pic was shot in Ontario), the plot centers on 27-year-old oddball Lars Lindstrom (Ryan Gosling). Raised by a taciturn father after his mother died in childbirth, Lars has some major emotional baggage: He prefers to avoid human contact and can’t stand being touched.

Living in the garage apartment behind his childhood home, now occupied by his older brother Gus (Paul Schneider) and pregnant sister-in-law Karin (Emily Mortimer), Lars tries to avoid the married couple’s constant invitations. His social life consists primarily of attending church and listening to the porn and action-figure fantasies of a co-worker. At the office, he scrupulously avoids the overtures of flirtatious colleague Margo (Kelli Garner).

Karin’s pregnancy seems to awaken a deep-seated fear of abandonment in Lars, expressed by the unexpected materialization of a girlfriend, Bianca, whom he wants his brother and sister-in-law to host. She’s a wheelchair-bound Brazilian-Danish missionary on sabbatical to experience the world. And she’s also a custom-made, life-size plastic doll ordered from the Internet.

Horrified by their new houseguest and Lars’ apparent insanity, Gus and Karin take the couple to family doctor-psychologist Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson). Believing Lars’ delusion indicates he’s working something out, Dagmar advises his worried family to go with the flow.

Tenderly depicting his characters’ human foibles with low-key visual humor, Gillespie never condescends or goes for an easy joke. Oliver’s pithy dialogue also avoids obvious yucks.

All the perfs are fine, with nerdily outfitted Gosling sympathetic in a role very different from what he’s essayed of late, and Schneider, Mortimer and Clarkson impressively three-dimensional. Among the supporting cast, Nancy Beatty makes an impression as a plainspoken neighbor, as does Karen Robinson as office receptionist Cindy.

Tech package is strong, with spot-on costumes. The eventual absence of Lars’ blanket-cum-scarf beautifully signals character development.

Lars and the Real Girl

Production

An MGM release of a Sidney Kimmel Entertainment, MGM Pictures production. (International sales: Kimmel Entertainment, New York.) Produced by Kimmel, John Cameron, Sarah Aubrey. Executive producers, William Horberg, Bruce Toll, Peter Berg. Directed by Craig Gillespie. Screenplay, Nancy Oliver.

Crew

Camera (color), Adam Kimmel; editor, Tatiana S. Riegel; music, David Torn; production designer, Arv Grewal; art director, Joshu de Cartier; costume designers, Kirston Mann, Gerri Gillan;  sound (Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS), Perry Robertson; assistant director, Libby Hodgson; casting, David Rubin, Richard Hicks. Reviewed at Toronto Film Festival (Special Presentations), Sept. 9, 2007. Running time: 106 MIN.

With

Lars - Ryan Gosling Karin - Emily Mortimer Gus - Paul Schneider Dagmar - Patricia Clarkson Margo - Kelli Garner Mrs. Gruner - Nancy Beatty Cindy - Karen Robinson

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