Directed by: Alexander Janko
Starring: Karen Allen, Michael Cristofer, Yannick Bisson, S. Epatha Merkerson, Monique Gabriela Curnen, and Celia Imries
Run Time: 1h 54min
Genre: Comedy, Drama, Romance
3 Frames out of 5
By: Shari K. Green
It’s never too late to reclaim your life is the tagline of this film, the directorial debut of composer Alexander Janko who has been working on the music in blockbuster films since 1993. Year by the Sea is about someone who could accept things as they are and never change them, or make a move against the grain and challenge herself. She chooses the latter and couldn’t be happier.
The film starts magnificently by showing home movies of two little boys being ‘directed’ by their mother. Then we see the title card. Beautiful music plays in the background and we see a woman taking great care cooking breakfast. Joan (Allen) finishes and carries the food on a tray to her now grown sons.
One of her boys, Andy, is getting married. During the event, bad news about her husband’s job forces the end of a perfect weekend with the family. They must sell the house and move. Joan, a writer, looks in the mirror. She takes a moment to reflect on herself, her life and the changes she’s not happy about being forced to make. She also touches her ever-changing face. Deep in thought, her eyes fill with worry. There is a lot of concern taken in this single shot; words are not needed to tell us what Joan is thinking. Not only is she wondering where have the years gone, but what of the ones to come?
Soon, she and her husband Robin, (Cristofer) have sold the house and are about to move. After a fight over money, he asks her why she’s never satisfied. Point blank, she asks him why he loves her. The response is a cold, ‘Because you’re my wife.’ Not surprisingly, overnight, she decides to stay behind and get a place of her own in Cape Cod. She tells him that the length of time it’ll take for her to find herself is unknown but for now, she can’t go on just being Robin’s wife.
When he drives away, Joan, a woman mostly defined by her role of doing things for everyone else, is alone for the first time in her adult life. We cut to lift off as her friend Liz (Merkerson), who has been with her to encourage her every step of the process, is present to walk her out of her house for the last time. Joan drives away off to her new life of adventure.
Set to gorgeous music and landscapes, she drives to a tiny house she rented in a little fishing village that she, unexpectedly and surprisingly, has can only get to by jumping in a small boat and rowing. Things have always been easier when another person was there to hold her hand. Now, she’s on her own. She can do it and she will. Struggling with her the oars, she loses her wedding ring. Is this a sign?
Having coffee in town the next day, she meets Cahoon (Bisson) a nice young fisherman and store owner who has a boat called the Seal Woman. He takes her out to see the seals and throughout the year he becomes a friend who she can count on to educate and help her when she needs it.
Joan gets a job at his little store to pass the time and help with the bills. She and Cahoon also become good friends. She also meets Joan Erickson played by the wonderful Celia Imrie. Erickson is a fiercely independent and strong woman who is constantly giving her advice, teaching her to be the same way she is. Happy just to be alive. They become such close friends, it’s hard to think there was a time when they weren’t.
As some films by new directors do, Year by the Sea comes slightly cliched when it looks at a common problem covered in so many narratives who have come before it. It seems contrived when Joan gets into the store clerk, Luce’s (Curnen) business when she sees Luce is being abused. This, unfortunately, becomes a trend for a bit that takes from the powerful account of a woman who is doing real soul-searching in her sea cottage; and handling the situation without much struggle. The decision she made to leave her life to start anew was the right one and here is where you want the film to focus. Luckily, it does get reigned back in as time passes. She becomes more comfortable with herself and her choice and you’ll become happier the Luce story doesn’t become the story.
Assuming he eventually would, Robin comes to visit at Christmas and the city boy in him isn’t happy with the new Joan. As he looks around her home, seeing she’s fine without him and sees an unfamiliar glow in her he comments, ‘You’re all technicolor and I’m all black and white.’ She explains the reason she had to leave and how important it was for her to see if she could make it on her own. If she spread her wings would they crumble in the wind or would they lift and carry her? He understands but isn’t comfortable. To her, he’s still a person unable to change. He’s the old… the uninteresting. Robin takes her need to leave very personally.
Through all of this Joan finally finds her new book within her. In the quiet, with no one disrupting the process, she starts to write.
I liked the chemistry Karen Allen had with each character in the film. Joan is loved by everyone she meets and gives it back just as much. Her face and the spark in her works to sell Joan as someone independent enough to have left the world behind and also be strong enough for the moment she knows who she is at last. You never do have a chance to like Robin. Without knowing much about him, it’s impossible to hope they make it work so in the end when they are back together, it’s difficult to see why. There are a few moments that seemed predictable and there was an insignificant montage that shows what the audience already knows. Janko even had a metaphorical opportunity and took it as he squeezed in Joan riding a bike built for two… all by herself. While these shots might be cute, they don’t help advance the story. I wish they had never been inserted into the film, but overall, with such strong performances and beautiful music and locations, the film is worth seeing and one I recommend if you like this type of story. Janko has room to improve but he has a light touch and there’s always an audience for that.
Exclusively playing at a Harkins theatre near you!
HERE is my interview with Karen Allen.