Year by the Sea, based on Joan Anderson’s bestselling memoir, is a “nice” film. It could play well on either the Hallmark Channel or Lifetime Television. This comedy-drama, written and directed by Alexander Janko (who also composed the intrusive music), has Joan (Karen Allen) taking a year away from her stony husband, Robin (Michael Cristofer of Mr. Robot), to find adventure—and herself. She heads off to Cape Cod, where she learns life lessons and how to be independent amid beautiful land and seascapes.
As Joan settles into her new life, she meets a new friend, also named Joan (Celia Imrie), who encourages her to live with vigor. Joan befriends Cahoon (Yannick Bisson), a hunky fisherman, who helps her with things like her plumbing, and teaches her to dig for clams. Joan also gives back to the community, helping Luce (Monique Gabriela Curnen), who works in the town store/coffee shop, regain some sense of self in her relationship with her abusive boyfriend Billy (Kohler McKenzie).
Between these episodes, Joan grapples with her own floundering marriage. Robin calls her, and visits during Christmas, but in her new found freedom, Joan has doubts about their future together.
Year by the Sea takes an unhurried approach to letting Joan work out her thoughts and feelings. Janko seems to have taken the show-don’t-tell approach to storytelling overboard. He features too many unsubtle scenes, such as Joan literally driving in circles, or losing her wedding ring rowing out to her new house. Yes, the metaphors are that obvious. He also has a penchant for too many montages set to adult oriented rock that can grate on viewer’s nerves.
That the narrative is almost entirely without surprises may not bother viewers who, develop patience like Joan and let the film wash over them like a warm ocean wave. However, anyone demanding more from Year by the Sea will want it to be brisker, even saltier. This film is so polite that Joan’s dirtiest word may be “crap.”
Nevertheless, Karen Allen gives a lovely lead performance. She is wonderfully expressive in her silent moments, as she vacillates between happiness to loneliness. She also has an amusing conniption when she gets a flat tire and sees it as a metaphor for her troubles. Allen gets sturdy support from Celia Imre, Yannick Bisson, and S. Epatha Merkerson, as Liz, her book editor, who encourages her to write.
And the strength of the film is, indeed, Joan’s writing. Late in the film, Joan voices her observations about her feelings and experiences. These moments are inspiring, and enforce the film’s messages about rediscovering the essence of one’s self. Too bad the rest of Year by the Sea cudgels viewers with what to feel and think. At least the scenery and the people are pretty.
Year by the Sea opens today at the Ritz Bourse.
Author: Gary M. Kramer
Gary M. Kramer is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer. He is the co-editor of Directory of World Cinema: Argentina. Volumes 1 and 2, and teaches seminars at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute. Follow him on Twitter @garymkramer.