On a whim last night I watched this critically acclaimed box-office disappointment, and it resonated so well with some earlier posts here on the topic of manic pixie dream girls and their place in the 15-year cultural excitement cycle.
First, recall that during the vulnerable refractory phase of the cycle, there's a retreat into the fantasy of obtaining a made-to-order robo-gf -- one who won't require all that painful social stimulation in order to court and woo.
Then, recall that during the restless warm-up phase that follows, the manic pixie dream girl archetype appears out of nowhere, as a kind of guardian angel to coax the male protagonist out of his vulnerable-phase cocoon, lifting him out of the emo funk that he'd been mired in throughout the previous phase.
Lars and the Real Girl came out in 2007, during a restless warm-up phase that should not have had the robo-gf and should have had the manic pixie dream girl. Instead of featuring solely one of those two types, the movie shows both, but in a way that is consonant with the warm-up phase -- leaving the emotional crutch robo-gf behind, and welcoming the charms of the manic pixie dream girl, as the protagonist works his way out of a deep dreary depression.
Even when the robo-gf is the focus of the plot early on, the protagonist is never depicted as enjoying a fulfilling retreat into fantasy (unlike The Stepford Wives, Weird Science, and the like). His attachment to his robo-gf is clearly shown as forced on his part, plainly an emotional crutch, and is treated as pathological by the other characters, who still want to help him through this awkward stage. This is the only way the robo-gf archetype can exist during the warm-up phase when people are itching to leave behind their emo-phase cocoons.
The manic pixie dream girl, for her part, doesn't get as much screen time as in other movies during the most recent peak of the type (the late 2000s). But it's clear what role she plays vis-a-vis the protagonist, does not exist so much for her own character arc across the narrative, and has the usual eccentricities in personality and appearance that are associated with the type.
A post on the birth phases of manic pixie dream girls showed that they overwhelmingly were born during a manic phase of the cycle. They imprinted on a social-cultural atmosphere of invincibility and carefree social relations during their introduction to the world -- and then again during their adolescence (around age 15), when they're hitting their stride socially. And sure enough, the actress playing the manic pixie dream girl in this movie was born in 1984, during the early '80s manic phase. It rarely fails!
Strangely, she is left off of lists of manic pixie dream girls. I'd been looking over them and watching as many as I could lately, to get a better feel for this character type, now that she'll be coming back during the early 2020s warm-up phase. But this movie had totally eluded my radar until mindlessly scrolling Amazon Prime.
She must have been left off because the type of people who write those lists are obsessed with individual personas, both because they're spergy nerds who don't understand social relations, and because they're status-striving types who see things as contests among individuals rather than a holistic superorganic social ecosystem. (The movie does a great job of portraying this aspect of real communities like small-town Wisconsin.)
What makes a character a manic pixie dream girl is not her individual traits that could be listed on a trading card, or an online dating app profile -- it is her relationship to the protagonist, how their social interactions drive the plot of him coming out of his emo funk. She is his earthly guardian angel, not just some isolated free spirit who wears barettes in her hair and is generally in an upbeat mood.
Another reason may be the total lack of irony or self-awareness in the movie's tone. If every other example of the character was played in a movie that was ironic or self-aware in tone, then how could this one be a true example of the type? Because tone has nothing to do with the relationship between the characters. Again, cultural critics are just doing superficial analysis, ignoring social relations and roles, and emphasizing stylistic choices like the degree of irony struck in the tone.
A final reason why it's ignored in discussions of the character type or overall genre, is that the characters are not metropolitan professionals. In the striver critic's mind, who else but yuppies and current private school kids could ever be going through a funk and need to be coaxed out of their cocoons to fulfill some higher purpose that requires social integration? Certainly not office drones in flyover country small towns.
All these exceptions recommend the movie over most of the more well known examples of the genre. The focus on the holistic social ecosystem, the sincere tone, and the humanistic portrayal of ordinary people from unglamorous walks of life -- really makes it feel like a throwback to before the current status-striving / neoliberal era. Unfortunately that meant it couldn't succeed much with audiences, but it's definitely worth watching.