Sundance Moment

Sundance moment: Sexy oldsters create movie magic in dreamy film that earns standing ovation

Sundance moment: Sexy oldsters create movie magic in dreamy film

Blythe Danner and Sam Elliott in I'll See You In My Dreams at Sundance Film Festival
Sam Elliott and Blythe Danner make quite a pair in I'll See You in My Dreams. Photo by Adam James
Alive Inside, Sundance Film Festival
Alive Inside: A Story of Music & Memory received a revival-like reception at last year's Sundance Film Festival. Photo by Eyeball NYC
News_Sundance Film Festival_January 2012_concert_Jane Howze_Rodriguez
Jane Howze had a previous Sundance Moment when she posed for a photo with Rodriguez in 2012. Photo by Jane Howze
John Legend performing at Sundance Film Festival
John Legend performed at the end of the screening of What Happened Miss Simone? Photo by Jane Howze
News_Sundance_Searching for Sugar Man
Searching for Sugar Man was the surprise hit of the 2013 Sundance Film Festival and went on to win the Academy Award for Best Documentary. Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival
Blythe Danner in I'll See You in My Dreams at Sundance Film Festival
“This is a role  for which I have been waiting 50 years. I am a widow (her husband Bruce Paltrow died in 2002) and I am 71 years old," Blythe Danner said. Photo by Adam James
Blythe Danner and Sam Elliott in I'll See You In My Dreams at Sundance Film Festival
Alive Inside, Sundance Film Festival
News_Sundance Film Festival_January 2012_concert_Jane Howze_Rodriguez
John Legend performing at Sundance Film Festival
News_Sundance_Searching for Sugar Man
Blythe Danner in I'll See You in My Dreams at Sundance Film Festival

PARK CITY, Utah — I have been attending the Sundance Film Festival for eight years, four as a reviewer for CultureMap. I have seen over 100 films — some good, some great and some downright awful, and everything in between. But as I look back, what I remember are what I call "Sundance moments"—those ineffable, timeless instances when the audience responds to the film collectively on an emotional level, and that moment transcends the event. 

Every festival has at least one Sundance moment, although I was having trouble finding it at this year's festival.

Last year’s documentary, Alive Inside: A Story of Music & Memorywhich details how music can awaken Alzheimer’s patients, provided a high that lasted for days.

Many come from documentaries. Last year’s documentary, Alive Inside: A Story of Music & Memory, which details how music can awaken Alzheimer’s’ patients, provided a high that lasted for days. This film featured patients who had not spoken in years responding to music, and the audience responded in tears, cheers and an almost revival-like reception for the director.

After the film, I heard the audience discussing how to get iPods to nursing homes. Yep, a feel good documentary that resulted in doing good.

Music plays a large role in creating special Sundance experiences. For fans of the film, Searching for Sugar Man, which won the 2013 Oscar for best documentary, it was the surprise of learning that the documentary’s subject, Rodriguez, whom no one had heard of and those who had thought he was dead, was indeed still alive.

Before the audience could completely register that he was still among the living, Rodriguez sauntered on stage with his guitar and performed for an audience of 1,000 new fans. People cried, they laughed and they cheered, as if John Lennon had returned from the dead. 

Powerful punch

2015 Sundance opened with a powerful punch as What Happened Miss Simone?a documentary of the life of songbird and civil rights icon Nina Simone was followed by a surprise performance by singer John Legend honoring her music. There was sacredness in the tenderness of his performance. You could have heard a pin drop in the 1,200 seat theater. But it still didn't quite match my high from previous festivals.

I’ll See You In My Dreams is a wonderfully funny, touching and sad testament about relationships, pushing boundaries, aging and the choices one makes as a result of loss. 

Dramas rarely produce a Sundance moment for me. But that was before I saw I’ll See You In My Dreams, the story of Carol, a 70-year-old widow who must decide how to keep going once her beloved dog dies — the first of several events to disrupt her predictable routine. The pitch-perfect script is by young director Brett Haley, who spent time in retirement communities to get inside the heads of baby boomers — now senior citizens — who are becoming increasingly familiar with loss and the passage of time.

The film is a wonderfully funny, touching and sad testament about relationships, pushing boundaries, aging and the choices one makes as a result of loss. In short, it is a film about real people in the last third of their life.

The talented and beautiful Blythe Danner plays Carol with poise, elegance and compassion. Carol forms relationships with her young pool cleaner (Martin Starr) and a charismatic newcomer to the neighborhood played by the ruggedly handsome Sam Elliott with whom she has sparks-flying chemistry.

Much of the film centers on Danner's female relationships with her card-playing friends (played with pizzazz and a wink by Rhea Perlman, June Squibb and Mary Kay Place) and her daughter (Malin Akerman). One of my favorite scenes involves Carol and her three friends, in an effort to expand their boundaries, trying marijuana. Played by less skilled actors with a less than perfect script, the scene would have been hokey, but when they are pulled over by a cop, while pushing a shopping cart full of munchies down the street, the audience giggled as much as the stoned characters.

The film isn’t without contrivances, including a rat that won’t go away, and Carol’s preoccupation with cocktail hour, but those are minor quibbles. I won’t give away the ending except to say it was both happy and sad, like life itself. The film ends where it began by asking the question, “How do you start again?” 

Standing ovation

After a sustained standing ovation — not the norm for a Sundance drama — the cast emerged and hugged each other as they basked in the love from the audience. Danner, commenting on her first starring film role, said, “This is a role for which I have been waiting 50 years. I am a widow (her husband Bruce Paltrow died in 2002) and I am 71 years old.”

 Danner, commenting on her first starring film role, said, “This is a role for which I have been waiting 50 years.” 

The chemistry among the cast live and on stage was as palpable as it was in the film—a bona fide Sundance moment. 

The cast gave credit to co-writers Brett Haley and Marc Basch.  As Elliott said, “If it ain’t on the page, it ain’t on the stage.” The movie was filmed in only 18 days and with only a $500,000 budget — proof that a good script and talented cast don’t need a big budget and months of filming. 

This wasn’t the first film made about the silver-haired set, and hopefully it won’t be the last. But it is one of those films I just want to shout from the roof tops about how poignant and good it is. And I want Danner to get the recognition she so richly deserves — if she is just peaking at age 71, a lot of the social security set are going to be inspired.

As of today the film has not been bought. It will. A Sundance moment is like a genie in a bottle, and too good not to be shared and savored.

UPDATE: Bleecker Street, a New York-based indie film distributor, announced Saturday it had acquired worldwide rights to the I'll See You In My Dreams, according to the Hollywood Reporter.

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