As a middle-aged woman, I rarely have a conversation with other middle-aged women in which the subject of movies "for us" fails to come up. As a critic, I don't really think of movies in terms of which ones are "for" me and which are not, but I know what these women mean. They just want something to go to see in the theater, something that tells a story about the things real people in middle age or older (and not just women) go through. I'm relieved to have a film to recommend to them, one that's never glib or cute and that captures some believable textures of everyday life: In I'll See You in My Dreams, Blythe Danner plays Carol, a 70-something retired teacher, widowed for 20 years, who feels vaguely lonely but isn't sure she's interested in dating. Urged by her friends (the audacious triumvirate of Rhea Perlman, Mary Kay Place, and June Squibb), she tries speed-dating, with ridiculous results. Practically out of nowhere, the most radiant of silver foxes appears — his name is Bill, and he's played by the almost criminally appealing Sam Elliott — and sparks a romance that just might be the nebulous something Carol has been half-hoping for.
Or maybe not: I'll See You in My Dreams is only partly a movie about romance and dating post-70 and perhaps more a picture about friendships that blur the line between the platonic and the amorous. It's crucial to note too that this isn't just a nice little movie for older people: There's some real bite to the way it deals with the life questions that come with aging, and whatever sweetness it has is just an undertone, not a feel-good frosting overlay. I'll See You in My Dreams looks at aging not as a long trudge toward a death sentence, nor as the golden era of relaxing and cuddling we see in those dreadful Cialis commercials, but as a new country where the inevitable mingles with the occasional surprise. It's hopeful and realistic in equal measure, and it's anchored by a quietly resplendent performance from Danner, who brings a feather-duster touch to everything she does.
An early, key scene will be tough for dog lovers: Carol realizes that her beloved, aged Hazel — whom we first meet as a mop of golden fur loyally and lazily sacked out around Carol's knees in bed — has reached her last day. The moment Carol, at the vet's, sees the life go out of her friend is wrenching, though Danner plays it so delicately it feels like a warm, sad breeze. Seeing her return home with the leash is harder, but Danner simply opens space for the moment — grief has followed her through the door on silent, padding feet.
The dramatic tension of I'll See You in My Dreams is the gentle sort, but its arc is sturdy. Carol befriends the rudderless young guy who shows up to clean her pool, Martin Starr's Lloyd, whose deadpan mug disguises his shy sweetness: The two go on an innocent date together, to sing karaoke at a bar. (Carol, who was a singer in a long-ago life in Greenwich Village, wows him — and us — with an iridescent version of "Cry Me a River.") Their friendship has some shades of romance, though it's not tilting in that direction — they simply feel a kinship that has nothing to do with age. Carol spends time playing cards with her girlfriends, half-blushing at their bawdy jokes but also recognizing they're onto something when they urge her not to let go of that spark of whatever-it-is. And when she sees Elliott's Bill for the first time, as she's perusing the vitamin aisle at the pharmacy, her face lights up like that of a curious schoolgirl. "You don't need all that," Bill says in his fabulous Texas drawl. "You're just right the way you are."
Of course she is — she's Blythe Danner! And he's Sam Elliott! These two should go on a date! And eventually, they do. But the first meeting of their characters is a thunderclap moment, and it takes you out of the movie just a bit: Seeing Danner and Elliott together like this makes you wonder why we can't have more movies like I'll See You in My Dreams, where great-looking, charismatic performers we've been conditioned to think of as character actors — or who have simply been gathered under that catchall "older-actor" umbrella — get to play romantic leads.
In that respect, this picture bears some resemblance to Ira Sachs' piercingly beautiful Love Is Strange, which showcased John Lithgow and Alfred Molina in sterling performances, though the beauty of I'll See You in My Dreams is not quite as melancholy. Its writer-director is Brett Haley, a Brooklyn-based filmmaker who has made one previous feature (The New Year) and who is in his 30s. (Marc Basch co-wrote the screenplay.) What is Haley doing making a picture like this while other male filmmakers his age are chasing after movies fashioned from the comic books of their youth or riffing on the generational listlessness of their peers? How does Haley have any idea what it's like to be a widow in her 70s?
In terms of firsthand experience, he doesn't, so he enlists a crucial but seemingly forgotten tool of storytelling: I'll See You in My Dreams is a lustrous example of the sympathetic imagination at work. In its terms, there's no such thing as a target audience, that faceless, amorphous bunch that's perpetually being marketed to. This is a film for people who love actors and what they can do, and who warm to the idea of seeing underexplored corners of real life portrayed onscreen. That's a long way of saying you don't have to be a middle-aged woman to love it.