There is something about Blythe Danner's on-screen essence that is perfect for the gently aged widow she plays in "I'll See You in My Dreams," her first leading role in years.
The 72-year-old actress uses her mix of flinty, flighty and fragile to draw us into Carol's story and her life as it is shaken and stirred by the death of her beloved dog.
Director Brett Haley, who co-wrote the film with Marc Basch, has managed to create a film about those final years that gets to the heart of things like loss and love without patronizing or parody. No small thing to create a movie whose cast is mostly in their 70s yet whose story is so relatable whatever your age.
This slice-of-life comedy/drama/romance begins with the routines of Carol's life that are about to be disrupted. The 6 a.m. alarm, coffee and the paper in the garden, bridge with her friends, who have all decamped to a retirement home, a glass or two of wine at the end of the day.
The friends — Georgina, Sally and Rona — are an appealing bunch played with a great deal of dialed-down nuance by an equally appealing group of actresses: June Squibb, Rhea Perlman and Mary Kay Place, respectively. They are like a Greek chorus, weighing in on what Carol is and isn't doing. Georgina is the most outspoken, though not quite as acerbic or as disgruntled as Squibb was in "Nebraska" opposite Bruce Dern, a portrayal that earned the actress an Oscar nomination at 84. Place's Rona is the nurturer, Perlman's Sally the nudger. Their collective wisdom serves as Carol's safety net as she begins to venture into uncharted waters.
That journey is triggered by the death of Hazel, the yellow lab that's been keeping her company for years. Putting Hazel down is hard but doesn't break Carol, who has, like anyone who lives long, suffered many losses. In Carol's case, her much-loved husband's death 20 years earlier was the most defining, while the distance of both miles and emotional connection that separates her from daughter Kat (Malin Akerman) remains an ongoing regret.
At the moment, what's upsetting her equilibrium is more mundane — the sudden appearance in her house of a scurrying black rat. While it could be seen as a metaphor for death, the filmmakers use it more to establish the realities of real-world existence for one in her 70s. The pest control guy who is polite but doesn't really buy her black rat story becomes a reflection of society's dismissive attitudes about the aging population.
A far more interesting story line is what happens with the pool guy, Lloyd (Martin Starr). If you think the idea of a little flirtation with the pool guy is an old and overused movie trope, "I'll See You in My Dreams" just might change your mind.
Don't be alarmed: The general sophistication of the film would not allow for that kind of flirtation. It does, however, make room for an unexpected new friendship that reshapes both Carol's and Lloyd's lives. He's a struggling musician who's lately moved back in with his mother. She turns out to be a former songstress who gave up her career when she married. They connect over karaoke.
What "I'll See You" does particularly well is get at how any relationship — whatever your age — comes with a limited, rather than a lifetime, warranty. Indeed, the film is not driven so much by conflict as the changing states of the various relationships in Carol's life. Like the introduction of Bill (Sam Elliott), the dashing newcomer at the retirement village who spots Carol with her friends and decides he wants to meet her.
Theirs is the kind of romance it is easy to envy, with Elliott and Danner a perfectly well-matched set. I mean that on two levels because whatever appeal the pair may have for audiences, their falling-in-love arc is far better in its execution than any on-screen romance Hollywood has offered up in a while.
On a more fundamental level, both actors are the epitome of aging gracefully. But what make their exchanges spark on screen are the distinctive ways each has of expressing their characters' independent streaks and their needs. It is a romance marked by the sweetness and the sting of reality.
That double-edged sword is one Haley wields with great care as director. It begins with the film's gauzy look through the lens of cinematographer Rob C. Givens. Meanwhile, production designer Eric James Archer and costume designer Mirren Gordon-Crozier have created a blueprint for what comfortably affluent, but not ostentatious, might be. Composer Keegan DeWitt is responsible for the film's lovely original music, which, like everything else about the movie, is nicely underplayed.
Though Carol's romance with Bill is life changing, there is a texture and tone to her growing friendship with Lloyd the pool guy that feels more seminal. Starr and Danner make the interdependence between a young guy and a woman old enough to be his grandmother believable.
Which is really a reflection of what "I'll See You in My Dreams" does best: provide a window into a time in both their lives — the young and the old — that actually feels real.
'I'll See You in My Dreams'
MPAA rating: PG-13 for sexual material, drug use and brief strong language
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes