One can be forgiven if you think this is a documentary exclusively about sex dolls, a kind of behind the scenes that inspired Lars and the Real Girl. But director Maureen Judge gives us a more eclectic portrait of dolls obsession and collecting, from Barbie fan Mike to Michael Sullivan’s intrepid and ongoing stop-motion The Sex Life of Robots, passing by a hand crafty English Debbie who buys dolls compulsively, the hoarder-style Linda and yes, David, the present owner and lover (?) of celebrity sex doll Bianca. Which, as you would not have guessed,was not a proper sex doll before meeting David.
Despite its bizarre subject, Living Dolls manages never to ridicule its characters – they are presented as people that yes, have some issues and have an insane love for dolls that can be more or less controllable (and the collectors themselves give a Freudian analysis of their own behavior), but this is far from being a freak show. The different styles of collectors – from flamboyant, happy Mike, to whom Barbie was the definite coming out of the closet, to normal-looking David that has an harem (his own words) of sex dolls, including some weird Teddy Babes that he happily shows how to use “therapeutically” for a better night sleep – give you food for thought, particularly if you always imagined a doll collector to be a certain specific kind of person.
Maybe because of the time restrictions for production, however, what Living Dolls fails to give the audience is an arch for all its characters. Of course, a documentary is a free-range animal, so to speak, but when Mike and Debbie’s stories, particularly, are so emotive, the other three characters fall flat on any kind of development besides their little “quirk”. Though of course Judge’s decision not to dwell on certain areas of her subjects’ personal lives is understandable (in the Q+A afterwards she mentioned David’s case as something she really did not want to go into, though he seemed fairly open about it and does mention it in the film). In the end there’s an imbalance that steals us from a sense of closure, as there is so much about certain stories and so little about others, but all are given similar screen timing.
Still, Living Dolls is a worth-while documentary, showing on one side how destructive obsessions can be, but also, how easy it is to fall into one, and how thin the line between a true collector’s passion and a “filling the void” coping strategy can be at some points. At the end, you will want to know more about what happens to these people – Judge does not give us answers, but clearly manages to make us care.