Life’s rhythms are familiar, but are they limiting? That’s the question raised by “I’ll See You In My Dreams,” which at first seems like a cut-and-dry “senior citizens fall in love” film, but the themes are far broader than that. This is a film that considers the challenges of starting again, at any age, and its thematic nuances are worthwhile.
The ideal viewing party for “I’ll See You In My Dreams” would be grandparents, parents, and grandchildren, who could then talk about the film’s themes from their different perspectives. Could grandparents do what the protagonist of this film does, wading through grief and carrying on? Do parents relate to the protagonist’s grown daughter, who worries about her mother but isn’t sure how to bring them closer together? And do teenage grandchildren wonder about how their own lives will take shape? The film addresses a variety of issues that could spark an interesting series of conversations, and it helps that it’s funny and well-paced, too.
The film centers around the nearing-80-years-old Carol Petersen (Blythe Danner, of “The Lucky One”), whose life has settled into a familiar pattern after the death of her husband about 20 years ago. She lives with a beloved pet; she drinks a good amount of wine; she has a beautiful home; she spends time with a trio of boozy, gossipy, supportive friends at a local retirement community. Her days slip on by with almost nothing to tell them apart, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. She enjoys her life and she’s living it as she pleases.
Until, however, a series of events occur that seem to shake up Carol’s routine. First, her much-adored dog passes away after a rapid, intense illness. Next, a large rat starts to appear in her lovely, well-decorated home, a shocking mar upon the whites and pastels of the place. Then, she befriends her pool guy, Lloyd (Martin Starr, of “Veronica Mars”), who wanted to be a poet but has now settled for this job to make ends meet; his deferred dreams remind Carol of how desperately she wanted to be a singer once. And finally, she catches the eye of the wonderfully handsome, wonderfully Texas accented-retiree Bill (Sam Elliott, of “Draft Day”), who cheers her up after a terrible speed-dating experience and notes “You’re just right the way you are.”
Soon, Carol is taking little chances in her life again. She goes on not-a-date, but not-a-purely-platonic karaoke night with Lloyd, singing in public for the first time in a while. She spends time with Bill on his yacht, and begins pursuing a relationship with him. She gets into some silly hijinks with her friends. But then loss hits her life again. How does Carol keep starting over when she keeps losing so much?
Some people could argue that “I’ll See You In My Dreams” is the kind of movie where “nothing” happens, because it moves at a slower pace, focuses more on its characters, and lets scenes stretch out. But the film takes its time, and that patience lets the key relationships (Carol and Lloyd, Carol and Bill, and Carol and her daughter) develop naturally and believably. Plus, Danner is wonderfully relaxed and comfortable in the role, and the karaoke scene with Starr is a particular standout. Two people who understand what happens to you when you’re forced to give up on a dream, and how you make up ways to move on from that—that scene has power.
While “I’ll See You In My Dreams” isn’t flawless (the ending feels a little haphazard, and there’s a scene with medicinal marijuana use and munchies that feels particularly tacked on), the way it positions its characters together will keep your interest. This isn’t a film about the end of a life, but about how to live, and it’s an exploration for multiple generations to enjoy.