Mark Reviews Movies

I'll See You in My Dreams


3 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Brett Haley

Cast: Blythe Danner, Martin Starr, Sam Elliott, Rhea Perlman, Mary Kay Place, June Squibb, Malin Akerman

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for sexual material, drug use and brief strong language)

Running Time: 1:32

Release Date: 5/15/15 (limited); 5/22/15 (wider)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | May 21, 2015

There's a simple but striking and affecting visual motif employed by director Brett Haley throughout I'll See You in My Dreams. It involves the filling and subsequent emptying of space. The idea is established immediately at the start of the film, which begins with a series of static shots showing Carol (Blythe Danner) going about her daily routine. She wakes up to an alarm clock. She prepares and eats breakfast. She sits on her couch. She goes to bed at night to read. All the while, the space in the frame immediately next to her is filled with her loyal Golden Retriever.

Upon the start of what would be the first repetition this sequence of shots, we note that the space where the dog should be is empty. Carol walks out of frame to find the dog, and we hear the obvious in her voice.

The next scene, which follows a veterinarian's procedure of putting the dog to sleep, is difficult but necessary. The camera stays on Danner's face as Carol tries to be comforting in her beloved pet's final moments but can't quite process her emotions. She later admits to a new friend that she has been feeling numb. She knows she should be grieving—that she should feel sad, angry, and every other complementary and conflicting emotion that comes with that process. It's not happening.

Why that's the case is a question that is unanswerable because, while grief is one of the few constants in life, each person's experience of grief is a variable. Carol is numb. Perhaps it's because her husband died unexpectedly in a plane crash 20 years ago. Perhaps it's because she hasn't fully grieved the death of the love of her life. Perhaps it's because she retired immediately after his death and hasn't had much activity in her life since then. Perhaps it's because her friends have all moved to a retirement community and are trying to convince her to do the same. Perhaps she believes the best years of her life have passed already, and maybe that retirement community, as much as decries the idea of moving there, is starting to look inevitable.

Likely, it's all of these things and more. What we know is that, the next time we see those shots of Carol's everyday routine, there is an absence. The next time we see the same shot repeated, there is still an empty space where, as her new friend also says, "some body" used to be. Considering how prominent those shots of empty spaces are, it's safe to assume that Haley and Marc Basch's screenplay is particular with such perfectly worded sentiments. Sometimes, we need a certain somebody, and other times, we just need "some body."

A few new bodies who later become special somebodies enter into Carol's life after the death of her dog. One is Lloyd (Martin Starr), her new pool boy, who starts up a sweet friendship with Carol, who, age-wise, could be his mother or even his younger grandmother. They joke about the fact that some of the phrases they use sound like there's some romantic subtext present, but there isn't. They drink together, talk into the late hours of the night/early hours of the morning about life and regrets and the unknown future, and go out together to sing karaoke at a local bar.

Carol was once a professional singer until she married. Lloyd is impressed with her talent and surprised she stopped. Carol doesn't regret any of that. She has those memories on a shelf, along with pictures from childhood, of her husband, and an urn with his ashes. Later, a tin with the remains of her dog gets a place of honor on the memorial. The shelf serves as a bittersweet payoff of sorts to the shots of empty space. By the end of the film, there isn't much room left on it. Such is the way things go.

Another new body is Bill (Sam Elliott), who lives at the same retirement community as Carol's friends. He's a persistent one. They repeatedly meet by chance. Carol is attracted to him but hesitant to act upon her feelings.

He asks her out on a date. They talk with an ease that's similar to her conversations with Lloyd, but the romantic subtext is here. It's actually just right out in the open ("Yeah, I think I like you a little bit," Bill says with the kind of down-home charm only Elliott can provide). They spend entire days together. He wants to know about her, but she's reluctant. He asks about her husband, hoping that will be a way to get to know her. He's a kind, wise man with no family ties and a philosophy of making the most out of his final years.

Carol's daughter Katherine (Malin Akerman) visits to temporarily fill some of that empty space, framed next to an out-of-focus, flowery memento of another body that is now absent. The scenes with her friends (June Squibb, Rhea Perlman, and Mary Kay Place) fill some time, but it simply feels like time filler as they gossip, go to a speed-dating session, and, in one scene, partake in some medicinal marijuana. It's broadly amusing stuff but not much else.

This is a sweet but honest film that isn't "about" much of anything except to observe the way Carol starts to break up her routine (another way those repeated shots work so well) and find some much-needed solace in the company of others. In Danner's performance, we get the sense of a life lived and the gradual, difficult process of Carol opening up to new experiences long after she has come to believe that time has passed. I'll See You in My Dreams may not be "about" much, but nonetheless, it has a lot to say and, like its characters, says it with precision.

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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