Note: this review is featured on the Phoenix Film Festival’s website.
Tenderness and compassion are rare elements in the modern film industry. Yet I’ll See You in My Dreams prides itself on its old-fashioned emotions and of-a-certain-age lead characters. That could have led to a refreshing if contrived narrative, but Brett Haley’s film emerges as a strong example of living both old and young in a modern age, as the world moves far too quickly with scarcely any attempt at warning or preparing oneself for what’s to come. Blythe Danner, seen in an abundance of supporting roles over the past decade, finally receives a much-deserved lead as a widow quietly struggling with the loneliness that pervades old age. Her performance will stand as one of the year’s finest by a leading female. While the story itself seems to move through familiar motions and touch upon familiar feelings, the characters that inhabit the film are simply raw and surreal; it’s uncanny how they resemble both the moods and embodiments of their respective age groups. Those characterizations, and the remarkable complexity of the romances at the center of the film, make for an ostensibly recognizable but wholly unique tale.
The story opens with Carol Petersen (Blythe Danner) coping with the sickness of her old golden retriever. When her dear friend passes away, her loneliness begins to build. She’s been a widow for the past twenty years and, while she has her own interests, the days grow longer and more monotonous with age. She often visits her friends that live in a retirement community, a place where they feel happy but Carol cannot see herself living. Those friends include the oblivious Georgina (June Squibb) and the rambunctious Sally (Rhea Perlman), both of whom appear content with their life choices but discontent with Carol’s seeming sadness. Sure enough, Carol meets two men that begin to change her life: Lloyd (Martin Starr), a recent graduate with a college degree in Poetry that has been working as a pool cleaner for the last few months, and Bill (Sam Elliott), an old gentleman who hangs out at the retirement community with a penchant for fishing and holding a cigar in his mouth. These men not only change her everyday actions, but also how she wants to reform herself in the waning years of her life.
The film’s realization of characters and their realization of each other is profoundly moving. One of the most affecting scenes in the film is when Carol and Lloyd visit a karaoke bar, where they talk over drinks about why the bar is not very busy even though it’s fairly late at night. Lloyd explains that young people go out very late nowadays, even though it’s a weekday; the reason, of course, is that they don’t really have jobs anymore, not like they used to. While this aside is treated as a joke, it’s a harsh embodiment of modern youth culture and the perpetual struggle to find jobs post-graduation. The scene also allows Lloyd to discover Carol’s talents as a singer, a nice touch for a woman that clearly did not pursue her dreams when she chose to make a living. Danner’s performance makes the film excel when it should remain contrived, and the script is only a shred away from insincerity. But everything rings true. I’ll See You in My Dreams mines strong performances from its supporting players and develops them well, and it’s a film so unlike anything else in the marketplace right now. No explosions, no “big” moments or reveals. Just characters talking affectionately about life. It’s remarkable.
Grade: ★★★★½ (out of 5)