The stakes of Brett Haley’s I’ll See You In My Dreams may be relatively small, but the charming “hey, love can happen at any age” romantic comedy has such a big heart that it nearly instantaneously engages its lucky audience. Starring Blythe Danner as a seemingly put-together and well-rounded widow, the film follows her Carol as she begins to engage with the world – and it’s people – for the first time in a long time. Mostly comfortable in her nice house with her stylish (but practical) clothes and a tight group of card-playing girlfriends, Carol hasn’t broken out of (her self-imposed) box for quite some time, but when a tragic event pushes her to feel and explore more, everything changes.
Because it’s in the official Sundance synopsis and because it happens within the first minutes of the movie, here’s the tragic event in question: Carol’s dog dies. But it speaks to Haley’s power as a storyteller and the sensitivity of this particular story that such a death is so vividly emotional and honest. The opening five or so minutes of I’ll See You In My Dreams play out a bit like a short film, lulling us into the everyday routine of Carol and her faithful lab Hazel, gently hinting at what’s to come, and respectively removing Hazel into the afterlife with the maximum of care and sweetness. I cried. Admittedly, I cried pretty hard and pretty consistently in those first five minutes, which is why it’s so wonderful that I’ll See You In My Dreams is sweet enough to soothe such over-the-top reactions (well, until it makes you cry again, but that’s another story).
The film is only Haley’s second feature film – he previously directed The New Year, another small-scale story about a complicated woman that worked absolute wonders, seek if out of you can – but he is a director who knows his stuff and clearly understands the mechanics of storytelling. The basic elements of Carol’s story are not exactly unique to the indie film realm, and Haley occasionally slides into predictable and kinda cutesy arenas (a subplot about a rat who stakes out Carol’s house exists almost purely as a way to throw two characters together, and repeatedly), but the entire film is so satisfying and charming, that it’s almost impossible to hold any ill will towards it. That it focuses on an older woman is just icing on the cake (and, yes, unique icing at that, like lemon instead of vanilla).
Bereft after Hazel’s death, Carol slips into day drinking and listlessly hanging around her house. This is clearly not a good way to make friends, so it’s convenient that a new friend literally shows up in her backyard – her new pool guy, Lloyd (Martin Starr, in perhaps his most charming role ever). The two slowly work towards a friendship, bonded by interests (karaoke singing) and their vague sense that they are outsiders. Danner and Starr exhibit a lively, warm chemistry, and their friendship is kind of a joy to behold. But Lloyd isn’t the only new man in Carol’s life, and just as she and her pool guy are getting to know each other, another gentleman caller (Sam Elliott, dreamy as ever) attempts to stake a claim on the eligible widow.
I’ll See You In My Dreams functions as a coming-of-age tale for the retirement home set (that’s not a knock, one of the subplots of the film involves Carol’s friends, who all happily live at a country club-esque home, constantly trying to get her to move in with them), but the lessons that Carol learns never feel spoon-fed or embarrassingly obvious. Instead, Danner and Starr’s wonderful performances and the film’s overwhelming charm (and, yes, I do realize I’ve used the word “charm” in this piece three times previously and it’s even in the actual title this review, but sometimes only one word really works to describe something, such is the case with “charming” and I’ll See You In My Dreams) set it apart. If there’s one lesson the film attempts to convey, it’s that there is always sweetness left in the world, no matter what, and this is a big piece of it.
The Upside: Danner and Starr both turn in wonderful performances, very charmingly written, is obviously lovingly directed, is a necessary twist on the old rom-com genre.
The Downside: The script is occasionally a bit too predictable, Malin Akerman is underutilized.
On the Side: Although Danner’s first screen credit dates back to 1968, I’ll See You In My Dreams marks her first starring role in a feature film.
Related Topics: Sundance