Loneliness is hard to capture on film.
The audience can be told and shown in myriad ways, but the high highs and low lows of filmed melodrama rarely actually reflect the condition that we all know so well. Movies, just like people, can be too afraid of stillness and the banalities of the everyday.
On the page, “I’ll See You In My Dreams,” a light comedic drama about a widow figuring out what to do with her time, seems like the perfect vehicle for emotional extremes. On screen, it’s a quiet, elegant, funny, and entirely engaging portrait of a woman re-entering the dating world in her 70s and the off-beat relationships that guide her path.
The protagonist, Carol (Blythe Danner), lives a contented life alone. She’s been widowed for nearly 20 years, but has just lost another companion — her dog. Carol plays cards with her predictably sassy friends (June Squibb, Rhea Perlman and Mary Kay Place), but for the most part, she is by herself in her expansive, beige Los Angeles home. She gardens, she watches television, she drinks white wine, and time just passes. By allowing the audience into the ordinariness of Carol’s life and boredom, we are given the tools to empathize with her solitude.
For years, the thought of dating and remarriage had never been a serious consideration for Carol. Her friends remind her that it’s not for lack of offers or interest from others, though. She just doesn’t open herself up to the possibility.
But after her dog dies, and her whole routine starts to stale, Carol is jolted awake and out of her malaise, literally, by Lloyd (Martin Starr), a thirty something who’s come to clean her pool. She asks if he thought she was dead.
“You don’t look that old,” he replies.
The awkward and memorable charm of that meeting and their burgeoning friendship isn’t even the best in the film.
One day in the vitamin aisle of a grocery store, a handsome stranger in the form of Sam Elliott walks up to Carol and — cigar dangling from his mustached mouth — wholly disarms her.
“You don’t need all that. You’re just right the way you are,” he says gruffly and confidently.
It’s the kind of flirting that transcends the fourth wall, and launches Carol back into the world of trying. She tries speed dating, she has cackling heart-to-hearts with her friends, and she sings karaoke in a hip Los Angeles dive bar with Lloyd. Carol and the ladies even manage to elevate the “senior citizens getting high” joke.
Much of the delight in “I’ll See You In My Dreams” comes in the details. A bit of the way in, Bill (Elliott) decides to ask Carol to lunch in the middle of a parking lot. He’s in his car, she’s walking to hers, and there’s already another car behind his — poised and ready to honk if this little interaction doesn’t end soon. After a bit of casual back and forth, he asks for her number. “I’ll remember it,” he says. Carol rattles it off quickly as if it were a challenge.
It’s a small scene, but illustrative of the thought, care, and originality infused in so many of the moments, which are only enhanced by the terrific cast.
Writer-director Brett Haley hasn’t revolutionized anything with this refined, sweet film, but the world he has created feels authentic and comfortably lived in. And he’s found the perfect outlet for the exquisite Blythe Danner.
“I’ll See You In My Dreams,” a Bleecker Street release, is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for “sexual material, drug use and brief strong language.” Running time: 95 minutes. Three stars out of four.
MPAA Definition of PG-13: Parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
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