Carol (Blythe Danner) appears to have the sort of picture perfect, Nancy Meyers-esque life of a retiree, including long-stemmed wine glasses, chic gardening hats, and a fluffy golden retriever. This vision, though, belies the reality of the situation which is revealed, all too soon, when the golden is gone and the true emptiness in Carol’s lonely life is starkly apparent. There begins “I’ll See You In My Dreams,” a lovely meditation on the nature of relationships and friendships as we age.
The loss of her dog, and the appearance of a huge rat in her house, finally pushes Carol out of her comfort zone in her home sanctuary, upsetting her routine, and spurring her to seek help from her pool guy, Lloyd (Martin Starr). Though these events have clearly rattled Carol, it’s actually what she needed. It shakes things up a bit and she begins to notice the void that was covered up by the presence of her dog, Hazel. Inspired by a few glasses of wine, Carol strikes up an unlikely friendship with Lloyd, another lost soul of sorts, who also seems to be unaware of the lack of human connection in his life. Carol even agrees to speed dating at the elderly living facility where she plays cards with her friends (Rhea Perlman, June Squibb, and Mary Kay Place).
After a couple of encounters, and one disastrous round of speed dating, Carol agrees to a date with Bill (Sam Elliott), a rakish, sexy, cigar-chomping sort. Slowly, her composed, well-appointed emotional walls start to loosen, as she lets her hair down not just with Bill, but with Lloyd, her friends, and even her daughter (Malin Akerman). In many ways, her new relationships allow her to confront the past in ways it seems she hasn’t done in years. It turns out that letting new people in allows her to bring her old self back to life. Carol seems to rediscover her own humanity and the ups and downs that come with her desire, her grief, her humor.
The tone of the film, co-written and directed by Brett Haley, remains fairly light, but it never shies away from delving into the sad, dark places that inevitably come with the territory of this age. It’s a deeply humanizing piece that creates a space to examine the struggles and emotions of older women, who are all too often caricatures or completely ignored in popular culture. It’s impressive that Haley is able to tap into these characters and their journey as closely as he does.
The cast is fresh and charming on screen — Danner is delightful, per usual, her performance sensitive and subtle with different shades than we’ve seen from her. Martin Starr is also fantastic and it feels like he’s finally come into his own as a leading man. Rather than the geeky teen or deadpan stoner dude, he is open and vulnerable, and this performance proves he’s ripe for an indie romantic lead. Sam Elliott proves he ages like a fine wine, and while he’s playing to type here, he also lets his guard down as the playboy loner looking for the right kind of love. The supporting cast offers the right kind of comic relief to keep the tone light, without drifting into overly jokey territory.
“I’ll See You In My Dreams” offers a showcase for actors who are both breaking out and into new ground (Starr), as well as to familiar faces tackling new material (Danner, Elliott). It also proves Haley’s acumen as a writer-director — the script is well-structured, refined and satisfying, and the direction is sure-handed. Not to mention, it’s refreshing to have lesser-seen romances and different kinds of friendships on screen. Emotional and entertaining, “I’ll See You In My Dreams” is a sweet and sensitive tale. [B+]