Review by Jacquelin Hipes
After empty-nester Joan (Karen Allen) learns that her husband (Michael Cristofer) has lost his job and put their home on the market, she decides to relocate to a remote cottage in Cape Cod rather than follow him to Kansas. Based on Joan Anderson’s memoirs, Year By The Sea aims to showcase the journey of self-discovery she takes when freed from the domestic demands of a husband and two sons. The adventure is eye-opening from the outset. Joan can only access her seaside rental by trudging across beaches and rowing a tiny boat across an inlet. Although it has electricity and running water, the cottage is still much more rustic than the Anderson’s spacious suburban home. She gains a toehold in the community by way of Cahoon (Yannick Bisson), a local fisherman Joan asks to take her seal-watching, and in whose shop she later works.
After trying to row through a dense fog she meets another Joan (Celia Imrie), the wife of a famous psychoanalyst, swanning around along the shore. An unreformed hippy, she encourages the newcomer in letting down her hair and provides a sympathetic ear as Joan navigates her semi-separation. Anderson’s friend Liz (S. Epatha Merkerson) drops in on occasion to round out the trio. Although the real-life Joan Anderson surely learned a great deal about herself during this year-long experiment (she’s written several memoirs and self-help books all inspired by the Cape Cod visit and its aftermath), the adaptation on display here amounts to nothing more than a mish-mash of clichés and treacly platitudes.
At nearly two hours long, writer/director Alexander Janko’s script rushes right into Joan and Robin’s separation. In order to compress many years of sacrifice and mounting disappointment into a few minutes of screen time it reduces her husband to a boorish man-child who needs much less than a few decades to send a woman running. Far from the only oversimplification, Year By The Sea caters to an audience that prefers spoon-feeding. Grand life lessons are offered in the form of sage one-liners and characters spell out how they feel rather than showing it. A soundtrack comprised of acoustic soft rock points out how each montage means to represent introspection and personal growth.
Wooden performances all around don’t do the script any favors. Karen Allen captures the joy and uncertainty of Joan’s experience, yet fails to show any of the darker feelings—doubt, fear, anger—that must have been a factor too. Celia Imrie’s Joan is entirely too spacey. With little more than overused truisms at her disposal, the result isn’t that surprising. S. Epatha Merkerson fares best of the three leading ladies and that is probably thanks to her reduced screen time relative to the other two.
One must believe that the popularity of Ms. Anderson’s memoirs is reflective of a more nuanced approach to her singular choices. It’s just a shame to think that they have been reduced to a connect-the-dots look at middle age.
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