Film Review: Year by the Sea

So-called inspirational film about a mature woman who abandons her husband to run off and “find herself” on a Cape Cod beach. Absurd and dishonest in equal measure.
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“The real loneliness, Joan, is not knowing who you are.” “To love someone is to release him.” “Love is a risk.” “I can sense the tide turning and I embrace it.” “In adversity comes transcendence.”

Oh boy.

The cliché-ridden dialogue is just the tip of the iceberg. The characters, narrative and themes are equally (and relentlessly) banal in Alexander Janko’s debut feature, Year by the Sea, based on Joan Anderson’s best-selling autobiography A Year by the Sea: Thoughts of an Unfinished Woman (2000).

Like many chick-lit “self-actualization” memoirs—think Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love—this film will speak to comfortable women of a certain ilk who believe the self-indulgent nonsense that’s celebrated onscreen reflects a forward-thinking life.

In the early ’90s, the Nyack, New York-based, 60-ish Joan (Karen Allen) has spent three decades as a wife and mother. Her marriage to workaholic husband Robin (Michael Cristofer) has lost its spark. Also, she’s an empty-nester and feels at loose ends, suddenly aware she’s never focused on her own needs. Useless to argue she’s an in-demand, successful author, though that’s barely acknowledged in this film.

Either way, Robin has been summarily terminated from his long-term job thanks to ageism and told if he wants to continue working for the company he’ll have to relocate to Wichita (metaphor for death?). Not ready to retire and realizing he’ll never be hired by anyone else, he accepts the offer. But Joan, who has been yearning for Cape Cod, decides she doesn’t want to go with him and unceremoniously departs for Chatham, Mass., with no slated date to return.

Gone, she’s gone with the wind and off to find herself through broadening her horizons, female mentorship and the experience of unbridled joy in a natural setting. On a wintry beach near her isolated new home—she needs to row across an inlet to get there—we see her skipping and twirling across the sand, arms flung to the side, head thrust back, face skyward as seals frolic in the ocean and seagulls fly aloft. The scenery is indeed lovely. So are the haunting wide-angle shots. But how many of these do we need? And at each of her frequent so-called transitional moments, Janko’s own schmaltzy musical composition serves as its underscoring soundtrack.

Trekking her way to liberated selfhood, Joan becomes friends with—and mentee to—local resident Joan Erikson (Celia Imrie), wife of the iconic psychoanalyst Erik Erikson, who is dying in a nearby nursing home. It’s arguable to what degree Imrie’s depiction is accurate, though her portrayal evokes a dementedly trendy “thinker”—as viewed through the prism of a brutal parodist—who has never met a new-age platitude she didn’t like or in fact find insightful and profound.

We see her weaving in a “sacred space,” a room in her house she has dubbed “sacred” in order to facilitate the “weaving in” of good thoughts and energies into the world. As her husband lies dying, she has a revelation that what she really needs at that moment are lit candles around his bed. Why? Who knows? (It’s amazing the blankets didn’t catch on fire.) And, at a cemetery as she stares at ancient headstones with their birth and death dates separated by a hyphen, she portentously remarks, “It’s what happens in the hyphens that count.”

Mrs. Erikson, an early practitioner of arts therapy for psychologically troubled patients, is credited as her husband’s full collaborator and a major influence in his groundbreaking theories surrounding “identity crisis,” and his “eight life-cycles.” After his death, she wrote about the “ninth cycle,” detailing the potential for growth even at an advanced age.

Evidently, Joan is learning a lot from the older woman. She’s also discovering eye-opening facets of life from the other down-to-earth locals she meets, especially a sexy young fisherman with whom she almost has an affair. But all is not well in this windswept, Edenic world that includes a young woman who is being battered by her heavy-drinking boyfriend. They too must take a journey of recovery and reconciliation.

The outside world intrudes when a hurt and baffled Robin surfaces; Joan’s friend and literary agent Liz (S. Epatha Merkerson) also makes an appearance, battling her own demons. Her female lover has left her for a younger woman. (Three diversity boxes have been X’d off with one stroke: older, African-American, and lesbian too).

One of my favorite scenes features the two Joans and Liz bemoaning the plight of mature women. They grouse, rant, theorize, chuckle their heads off and in the end, wine glasses filled, they toast menopause. They dance on the beach.

Far more serious than the film’s absurdity is its fundamental dishonesty. Undoubtedly, Joan has moments of dissatisfaction, but she has it so much better off than almost anybody else staring at the screen and wondering why they don’t have the luxury of her “problems” or solutions. Imagine the money needed to set up a new household for an indefinite period of time without a steady gig. In the scheme of things Joan’s petty, self-absorbed grievances gussied up as valid feminist concerns border on the obscene (same issue with Gilbert’s Eat Pray Love).

If anyone has reason to complain, it’s Robin, who has been betrayed and abandoned by his wife in a moment of personal crisis, his. When Joan suspects Robin is having an affair and has the audacity to feel jilted and angry (after she’s jumped ship), I for one hoped it was true. He certainly deserved better than Joan.

Allen makes the most of her role and she’s even relatable to the extent you can suspend disbelief; Cristofer creates a befuddled but benign guy trying his hardest to do the right thing; and Merkerson as the grounded colleague-cum-gal-next-door-pal never hits a false note—well, within the parameters of the script.

But fine performances cannot compensate for the film’s heavy-handed tropes masked as storytelling that purports to be but is neither inspirational nor motivational. The tagline that sums up a drama shouldn’t make you giggle. “It’s never too late to reclaim your life.”


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