Lars and the Real Girl has been generating a lot of fratty chitchat lately as a pervy novelty film. Like, "Hoo-haw! I saw on E! News that there's a movie about a sex doll! A doll! To have sex with! That is so nasty, brah! I hope it has Dane Cook! Who wants to go tanning?" And I confess (shame on me!) that I fell into that trap too. The first lines of my notes read: "I'm pretty sure that even with a chi-mo moustache, OCD, and a weird blinking problem, Gosling can still get a date with an actual human." Zing! Got 'em!

But quickly, quietly, Lars and the Real Girl reveals itself to be very far away from all that. Understated, sad, funny, a little precious, it's about a guy named Lars Lindstrom (Ryan Gosling, twitchy and earnest), who lives in a snowy town and is extremely freaked out. He is terminally awkward and unfailingly clad in sweat pants. Hugs feel like burning. One day, Lars announces to his family that he has a "visitor" coming to stay: "She's not from here." "She doesn't speak much English." "She's in a wheelchair, so I just don't want her to feel weird about it." "She's shy." "Bianca's a missionary." "Somebody stole her luggage, then they stole her wheelchair!"

Bianca, of course, is not a real person, but a Real Doll: one of those horrible fucking silicon things with dead eyes and welcoming orifices. Creepy dudes want Real Dolls because they never say no. Lars wants Bianca because she never touches him and she never asks him questions. He wants the companionship of complete passivity. As far as Lars is concerned, Bianca is alive. He dotes, he beams, he brags: "Ooh! You should watch me chop wood, too. I'm really good at it." They keep separate bedrooms—Lars doesn't believe in sex before marriage. Bianca is creepy and dead, and that's kind of the point, and it's also kind of not.

After some initial hesitation—"She's not a person, she's a big plastic thing!" "He's in love with that slutty hunk of silicone!"—Lars' mortified brother (Paul Schneider, oddly hot) and desperately well-meaning sister-in-law (Emily Mortimer) take the lovebirds to the town doctor, Dagmar (a wry, unfazed Patricia Clarkson). To Lars, Dr. Dagmar says, "Well, her blood pressure's low." To everyone else, she explains that Lars' Bianca delusion—stemming from a vaguely explored distant father, now dead—might be the only thing holding his brain together. Aside from a few church biddies ("She's a golden calf!"), the town adopts Bianca for Lars' sake. They bathe her, cut her hair, and wheel her about.

The film is being marketed as a comedy, and the premise, obviously, should ooze absurdity. The idea that an entire town would spend months socializing with a sex doll so as not to hurt the psyche of the mustachioed town hermit who never talks is less than credulous. But Lars' funny bits are sympathetic, not cruel, and its silly plot goes down easy. In fact, it feels more honest than the last 50 romantic comedies I've seen, all starring women made of meat instead of Tupperware.

Lars doesn't want to exploit Bianca, and Lars and the Real Girl doesn't want to exploit Lars. His family, and the whole town, and the film itself, remain affectionately and sadly respectful. And even though there's no sex, there's also no moralizing. It's just a sweet, frank movie about lonely people and damaged people and people being good to one another. And a sex doll. But whatever.