I'll See You in My Dreams February 26, 2021
feel so incomplete — like there’s supposed to be something more.” So says Carol Petersen (Blythe Danner), the 70-something-year-old protagonist of Brett Haley’s low-key drama I’ll See You in My Dreams (2015). This introspective character study follows Carol, who lives by herself with her elderly dog in a quaint California town, in the aftermath of a personal loss: the death of that beloved pet.
Carol has gotten used to a life alone. Her husband died 20 years ago in a plane crash — she’s been living off the insurance money ever since. She sees her best friends, all of whom live in a nearby retirement community, regularly enough to stave off total isolation. Carol seems to have made peace with the idea that her best days may be behind her, though sometimes she misses her singing career (she was in a semi-successful New York band in the 1970s) and the years she spent afterward as a reading teacher.
But the death of Carol’s most loyal companion seems to have stirred up something in her — a new lease on life, a feeling that there is supposed to be something more. She opens herself up to a May-December friendship with her new pool boy, Lloyd (Martin Starr), an old soul who is lost in life and feels a kinship with his new client. (“I don’t think I’m looking forward to anything,” he admits to his new friend.) When her friend group — a warm and funny trio made up of June Squibb, Mary Kay Place, and Rhea Perlman — suggests she try out speed-dating, Carol figures she doesn’t have a reason to say no. (After suffering through a succession of quick-bite chit-chats with almost exclusively self-centered men, she scoffs, “I live a long, healthy life for that?”) There’s an extended comic sequence during which Carol and her friends decide it might be fun to enjoy together the contents of a medical-marijuana stash; in a lesser film, this segment might try for goofy laughs — lean into the discordance of old people getting high — but Haley manages to find the truth in what is the movie’s most lighthearted moment. It’s an indelible memory-in-the-making between a group of devoted friends — perhaps an unwitting testament to how when this movie offers even the most familiar of plot points, Haley dramatizes them closely to how we would expect them to unfold in life, unconcerned with scoring a big laugh from an audience.
Things seem like they could really look up when Carol starts dating Bill (Sam Elliott), a resident at that closeby retirement community. (When Bill asks Carol for her number after only a few brief interactions, it’s a bolt-of-lightning, rom-com-magical moment: with a cigar resting in his mouth, he flags her down behind the wheel of his car, windows rolled down, in a parking lot, blocking traffic until she gives him an answer — it’s a fan-fiction-like moment playing with Elliott’s durable cowboy-like heartthrobishness.) They have an instant connection, and after a few dates it seems to Carol like this funny and compassionate man could be the person to guide her to a new, happier chapter — one where she can appreciate the last stretch of her life with someone next to her. Haley doesn’t go for the obvious once this starts to seem like a real possibility — and although part of me wishes he had (you want Carol to experience happiness more than a little fleeting), one appreciates Haley’s unwavering unwillingness to take the film to expected places.
I’ll See You in My Dreams isn’t trying to make any big statements about getting older or a late-in-life romance. The movie pleasantly moves along as a textured and sincere examination of a septuagenarian’s life, perceptively and sometimes even optimistically dramatizing a period where a heightened awareness of one’s mortality imbues any glimmers of joy. The film is held together by Danner, who gives a radiant and touching performance. The movie is at its best when she’s acting next to Starr and Elliott; it’s affecting to watch this woman, who has for the most part resigned herself to the rhythms of a sedate routine, be appreciated by someone new. Starr and Elliott are moving in their own right: Starr as a searching soul whose sardonic worldview disguises warm-heartedness; Elliott as an improbably dashing, emotionally probing suitor who, in contrast to Danner’s character, isn’t prone to hesitation at this point in his life — he just might be bolder than ever. I’ll See You in My Dreams is so unhurried and quiet that you could see it, in less capable hands, coming and going purely as an aging actor’s showcase. But for me the film — an empathetic account of a life rarely given the main stage in the movies — lingers. A-