‘Year by the Sea’: Film Review

Courtesy of Dana Starbard/Year by the Sea
The star shines amid the watered-down wisdom.

Karen Allen stars as a long-married woman who opts for soul-searching solitude on Cape Cod in an adaptation of Joan Anderson’s best-selling memoir.

Someday, American movies revolving around women over 50 won’t be constrained by a certain perceived mandate: the need to deliver lessons in resilience and reinvention. In the meantime, we have Karen Allen’s vibrant, thoughtful portrait of resilience and reinvention in Year by the Sea, a film that’s otherwise awash in a high tide of self-help bromides.

Allen plays Joan Anderson, a good wife who, after more than 30 years of marriage, steps away from her taken-for-granted caretaking roles and into the unknown, in the form of a charmingly rustic seaside cottage on off-season Cape Cod. Joan’s economic privilege is elemental to this adventure in selfhood; she may take odd jobs but is never really wanting for money (or wine). Yet though there are shades of Eat Pray Love in the story’s setup, it’s no self-congratulatory lifestyle checklist.

Based on Anderson’s 2000 memoir (and several follow-up volumes), the feature clicks when it focuses on the central character figuring out her new element, whether that means rowing a boat, making friends, working an indoor water pump or digging for clams.

To that end, Alexander Janko, a musician and film composer debuting as a writer-director, smartly ups the learning curve for Joan by turning the house into a rental rather than property that’s already in the family, as it is in the source material. But Janko smooths any sense of dislocation, rushing in at nearly every turn with the movie equivalent of New Age affirmations: Characters spout helpful bits of wisdom, unpersuasively disguised as conversation, and the soundtrack gently gushes with folk-pop songs.

The resulting guided tour of self-realization will no doubt resonate with fans of Anderson’s writing and workshops or those of similar motivational brands — or anyone who simply wants to enjoy the tourist-free beauty of the scenery, well captured by DP Bryan Papierski.

With her sons grown and her pill of a husband, Robin (Michael Cristofer, of Mr. Robot), not even bothering to tell her that he’s accepted a job in Wichita, Allen’s New York suburbanite faces the abyss — more of the wifely same — and chooses to fly solo. Janko’s screenplay skips the moment when she tells Robin her plans, leaving the state of their marriage somewhat ambiguous for the viewer. That makes sense, given that neither Joan nor Robin has any idea where they’re headed from this turning point. More problematic is the vagueness attached to Joan’s career as a writer. Notwithstanding the warm, needling support of her agent (S. Epatha Merkerson) and periodic mentions of her work, it registers more as a low-priority hobby than a vocation.

If the movie fails to convince on the authorship front, Allen makes Joan’s self-questioning and pangs of guilt as fully felt as her eagerness for new experience. Yet as she gets into the flow of small-town coastal living, the friction inherent in this seismic shift dissolves a tad swiftly, and in short order she can count on several locals as trusted friends.

The first of these is another Joan (Celia Imrie, of The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel), who lives alone while her famous psychologist husband, Erik Erikson (Alvin Epstein), is noncommunicative in a nursing home. The thrust of the Eriksons’ real-life work on psychosocial development is turned into a muddled plot point. And while Joan Erikson may have been an extraordinary woman with a therapeutic knack, the movie reduces her to an effusion of “I see the real you” commentary, ecstatic dancing and scarves.

A thirtysomething fisherman (Yannick Bisson) becomes Joan Anderson’s fish-market employer and smitten admirer. However many clichés the film might indulge, it avoids the older woman/younger man scenario that posits sexual healing as the ultimate answer. Year by the Sea strains in the opposite direction, casting almost every romantic relationship in a troubled light, and not subtly. Joan’s boss takes any awkward opportunity to remark on the disagreeable personality of his wife (Jane Hajduk). A coffee-shop waitress (Monique Gabriela Curnen) and her alcoholic boyfriend (Kohler McKenzie) present a picture of domestic abuse straight out of an afterschool special.

That Joan doesn’t merely write off the self-centered Robin is the movie’s least predictable element. She comes to recognize the distinction between the enterprise of marriage and true, soul-to-soul relationship — an especially crucial one for women of her generation. (The story takes place in the mid-’90s, making the central characters a bit older than baby boomers.)

“You’re all Technicolor,” a dazzled Robin, hoping for reconciliation, tells his estranged wife, and then adds a note of self-aware complaint that could apply to nearly everyone in the film other than Joan: “I’m black-and-white.” Joan’s story unfolds all too neatly, but in Allen’s spark and grace there’s a real sense of discovery.

Production companies: Real Women Make Waves, B-Arrow Enterprises, Montabela Productions, Rivet Entertainment
Distributor: Real Women Make Waves
Cast: Karen Allen, Yannick Bisson, Celia Imrie, S. Epatha Merkerson, Michael Cristofer, Monique Gabriela Curnen, Jane Hajduk, Kohler McKenzie, Alvin Epstein
Director-screenwriter: Alexander Janko, based on the memoir by Joan Anderson
Producers: Laura Goodenow, Alexander Janko, Bill Latka, Dale Armin Johnson
Executive producer: Cressey Belden
Director of photography: Bryan Papierski
Production designer: Jimena Azula
Costume designer: Carisa Kelly
Editor: Noriko Sakamoto
Composer: Alexander Janko
Casting director: Pat McCorkle

114 minutes