A stalwart of the silver screen for more than forty years, Blythe Danner has rarely had the chance to take center stage the way she does in I'll See You in My Dreams. One of the year's truly great surprises, it's a film about growing older and taking new chances, and in the wrong hands it would have been played up for stale laughs about hot flashes and Viagra. Thankfully, what we get is a sweet and charming little film that should speak to audiences of any age.
Danner shines like never before in the role of Carol, a widow with a comfortable life and no desire to ever change it. She's got her pet dog, her small group of friends (played by June Squibb, Rhea Perlman, and Mary Kay Place), a glass of wine always nearby...what else could she need? But when she suffers a terrible loss, and discovers a giant rat running loose in the house, Carol is forced to get back out there (she literally sleeps on the outdoor hammock for a while) and experience life.
Directed and co-written by Brett Haley with a subtle humor most comedies about older people simply don't have, we're taken through Carol's awkward steps back into the dating scene, without ever making fun of her being older. She unexpectedly strikes up a friendship with Lloyd (Martin Starr), a pool boy who seems to be trying to figure out his own life. That he's many years younger than her is inescapable, but they share a bond as two people desperate for human interaction. After a failed attempt at speed dating, really the only scene that feels a bit off, Carol meets and forges a romance with Bill (Sam Elliott), a rich, cigar-chewing rogue who falls for her hard. She even reconnects with a wayward daughter (Malin Akerman) who is surprised to see her mother taking risks again.
For Carol, tearing down her emotional armor takes time after years spent alone, and we see her open up in ways that are charming, funny, and heartfelt, without losing sight of the harsh lessons that come with growing older. There's a great moment when Carol, who had been a singer early in her life, takes the stage for karaoke and you can just see her glowing with a mixture of joy and self-confidence. It's just refreshing to see a film that treats older women with respect, not as stereotypical "cougars" on the prowl or the butt of jokes. Danner delivers a warm and vulnerable performance, which isn't really a shock, and we're all fortunate she's been given this larger platform to show the full range of her talents. Elliott, who looks like he hasn't aged in about twenty years, still has that rugged cowboy mystique, but he gives the role more depth than it may actually require. And it's good to see Starr in a truly adult role, one that doesn't play off his Freaks & Geeks past.
There's a reason Danner received such incredible reviews for her performance when the film debuted at Sundance a few months ago. If this were later in the year we'd be talking about her as a Best Actress nominee. She more than deserves it. That probably won't happen, but the next best thing is for as many people to experience I'll See You in My Dreams as possible so Hollywood keeps making movies just like it.