Sixty-something Carol has aged how we all hope to: free of health or money problems, looking like the incandescent Blythe Danner, the actress who plays her, with a full set of hair and an adult child who calls regularly. But not even Carol, with her charmed silver years, can stave off death. The Grim Reaper snatches her dog just three scenes into “I’ll See You in My Dreams,” a warm, thoughtful, delicate charmer about living with mortality.
A far cry from the Nancy Meyers rom-com promised by its trailer, Brett Haley’s directorial debut is a poignant if slight drama elevated by its impressive candor and by Danner’s radiant performance. Widowed and retired for two decades, Carol has little to do, especially after she relieves her cancer-ridden Labrador retriever from his suffering. After a speed-dating event gone wrong (do they ever go right?), Carol snarks at her best friend Sally (Rhea Perlman), “I live a long, healthy life for this?!” – except she’s not entirely joking.
The thin but just-enough plot finds the mourning senior attempting to fill up her days with something other than bottles of afternoon chardonnay. She’s adamant to her bridge partners (Perlman, Mary Kay Place, and June Squibb) about not wanting a second husband, but a lanky, broom-mustachioed cowboy named Bill (Sam Elliott) saunters her way anyway. Carol then finds even better male company in Lloyd (Martin Starr), her pool cleaner-turned-drinking buddy, a reflexive self-deprecator in search of something to do with his poetry degree.
It’s all familiar material, of course, down to the “Golden Girls”-broad scene in which Carol and her girlfriends get goofy on some medicinal wacky tobacky. But it’s impossible to take issue with the formula here; Carol is such good company, as are all her old and new friends, and Haley transports this well-worn narrative into a life stage rarely explored at the multiplex.
Most of Carol’s life is behind her, and that’s OK. What’s left is to continue existing without atrophying or letting death’s sudden appearances — and its ability to abruptly obliterate dreams and futures — destroy one’s equilibrium. The steady intrusion of mortality doesn’t make “Dreams” woeful or depressing, but rather quietly thrilling in its depiction of Carol’s hard-won wisdom.
The retiree’s deeply affecting rapport with Lloyd is the centerpiece of the film — with some light hijinks tossed in about one of Carol’s nosy friends trying to suss out if the two are sleeping together. Carol and Lloyd go karaoke-ing together, and it’s hard to know which is the greater pleasure: the Olympian-level pretty-eyes contest between Danner and Starr or the erstwhile Bill Haverchuck (Starr’s iconic “Freaks and Geeks” role) getting his boogie on once more. Both characters are existentially stuck – and Carol in particular has few places left to go. She warns Lloyd that “living in the moment” is a dumb fantasy in a wonderful monologue that’s bracing in its honesty about, well, dying, of course.
The recent proliferation of gray-haired cinema is a welcome development, but it hasn’t yielded very many notable pictures. “Dreams” doesn’t just buck that trend; it points a new way forward by being frank about living one’s final years and confronting that fact every day.