I'll See You in My Dreams is the antithesis of mainstream Hollywood cinema: Its lead actors are over 70, there are no visual effects, the humor is wholesome, it doesn't have an undeniably happy ending — and there's no shameless pandering for a sequel. This is the simple story of a widower who's a lonely soul but isn't looking for love, just companionship and happiness. The fact that she finds all of the above is a testament to her good nature, though as with anything in life there are no guarantees.
Carol's (Blythe Danner) husband died 20 years ago, which allowed her to retire from her teaching career and continue her part-time singing hobby. At the start of the film she's content: She plays bridge with the girls and has a daily routine that keeps her going. She has her own home, a pool, a loving daughter (Malin Akerman), a level head, and if she ever wanted to capitalize on it, her looks (Danner is Gwyneth Paltrow's mother). She befriends her much-younger pool cleaner (Martin Starr) because he too is a lonely soul, and they form a bond that enriches both of their lives.
One day while shopping for vitamins a man with a deep voice and Hall of Fame mustache* comes up to her and says, "You're just right the way you are," then turns around and smiles as he walks away. He's Bill (Sam Elliott), and she's intrigued. Later he asks her to lunch and a genuine, heartfelt bond is formed.
Many movies have been made about growing old gracefully, but few do it with the touching poignancy of I'll See You In My Dreams. A large reason for this is Danner, who assumes the lead role with a fragile elegance. She accomplishes the rare feat of making us want Carol to be happy, and simultaneously not frustrating us when Carol makes stubborn, pig-headed decisions. As for Elliott, he gets to show a softer side to his gruff screen persona than we're used to and is highly effective as the alpha male Carol needs to help her find happiness.
Director Bret Haley's film is not without humor. One montage has Carol the victim of disastrous speed dating, with potential suitors wanting everything from a housewife to a sex partner to a shoulder to cry on. And an inspired, unexpected bit emerges when Carol and her lady friends (Rhea Perlman, June Squibb, Mary Kay Place) indulge in medicinal marijuana and get the giggles in the supermarket checkout.
It's not that telling a good story has become a lost art; it's that visual frills and extravagances are also required in today's cinema to earn more money. So there's something to be said for the simplicity of the good, honest, and touching story of I'll See You in My Dreams, which may be intended for an older crowd but is certainly a movie we can all learn from.
*This is true: Elliott was inducted into the International Mustache Hall of Fame in 2015.