In the first few minutes of I'll See You in My Dreams, Carol Petersen (Blythe Danner, Meet the Parents) watches in sorrow as her ailing dog is put to sleep. This would be a tough moment for any person, but it's particularly rough for Carol: that dog was the only real companion she had left in her day-to-day life. Her husband died a couple of decades earlier, her daughter (Malin Akerman, Watchmen) lives in another state and now... well, now Carol is really, truly alone. Her girlfriends Georgina (June Squibb, Nebraska), Sally (Rhea Perlman, Cheers) and Rona (Mary Kay Place, The Big Chill) have all been encouraging her to go out and try to meet somebody for ages, but Carol has always resisted. Now, she's starting to reconsider.
Brett Haley's gentle comedy/drama is the sort of small, wise, character-driven film that won't be seen by many people but will almost certainly be admired by those who do choose to spend a little time with it. With empathy and honesty, it details a chapter in life that represents something for a crossroads for many people: a moment when a person must decide whether it's time to start over again in some way, or whether there isn't enough time left for such things. Watching it reminded me of a conversation I once had with an elderly man who said that he missed having dogs around the house. I asked him whether he was thinking about adopting another one. “I don't think so,” he sighed. “I don't think it's right to adopt a dog that will outlive me.”
Things look a little bit more optimistic for Carol, who still has her health and is still young enough to go out and do things. Reluctantly, she decides to dip her toes into the world of dating again. After a disastrous series of encounters at a speed-dating event, she meets Bill (Sam Elliott, The Big Lebowski), another lonely person who's thinking about starting over again. She also begins developing a friendship of sorts with Lloyd (Martin Starr, Party Down), a young pool cleaner who becomes an unlikely drinking buddy (wine on the patio during the day, beers at the karaoke bar on Thursday nights).
I'll See You in My Dreams unfolds at a relaxed pace, and largely plays as a hangout movie divided into three parts: hanging out with the gals, hanging out with Bill and hanging out with Lloyd. Through these charming, low-key moments, Danner finds a lot of little ways to bring definition to Carol, imbuing the role with a sense of personal history and private heartbreak. Look at the way a quick flash of surprised warmth appears on her face as she listens to a voicemail from her daughter. That's the kind of moment that turns a good character into a great one. Danner has been sidelined by a lot of the movies she's appeared in over the course of her career, and here demonstrates just how good she can be when she has the space she needs to create a real character.
The supporting players do fine work, too. There's a sense of lived-in familiarity between Carol and her girlfriends that occasionally feels reminiscent of something from a Robert Altman film. Starr plays a character who seems considerably more vulnerable and emotionally open than most of the deadpan figures he usually essays, and keeps us guessing about what precisely his character is hoping to get out of his relationship with Carol. Best of all is Elliott, who brings so much old-fashioned warmth to the affectionate, cigar-chomping Bill. The romance between Bill and Carol moves quickly, but it seems convincing when you consider the way Elliott delivers a line like, “I think I like you a little bit.”
While the film remains fairly committed to its fine-tuned “dramedy” tone – the goofy moments never get too goofy (okay, maybe that brief, pot-fueled late-night adventure does), and the dramatic moments never get too heavy – it's more substantive than it appears at a glance. The film's themes snap into focus during the third act, and it leaves us with a series of scenes in which seemingly minor decisions reveal much larger things about where Carol is and where she's going. We make certain choices when we're young that define large parts of our lives, and movies tell those stories all the time because movies inevitably gravitate towards young people. The stories of the equally important decisions we make when we're old aren't told nearly as often, much less told quite this well. I'll See You in My Dreams is worth your time.
I'll See You in My Dreams
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Running Time: 92 minutes
Release Year: 2015