Year by the Sea
Joan Anderson (Karen Allen) decides to rent a house along the beach on Cape Cod after her husband, Robin (Michael Cristofer), relocates to Kansas because of work and her two adult children finally move out of house. She hopes to begin writing again while finding peace of mind far away from her family. John Cahoon (Yannick Bisson), a fisherman, befriends her and agrees to hire her, temporarily, at his local fish market. When she meets Joan Erikson (Celia Imre), who's grieving the loss of her husband, psychologist Erik Erikson, Joan Anderson's quest to find true happiness and to get to know herself officially begins.
Based on the memoir by Joan Anderson, Year by the Sea is an enchanting, warm, wise and profoundly moving film brimming with humanism, a truly special effect that's rare to find these days in American films. Writer/director Alexander Janko finds just the right balance between entertaining the audience and provoking them emotionally as well as intellectually. Many scenes feel relatable and ring true. Janko also knows how to introduce characters in a way that's compelling, i.e. how Joan Anderson meets Joan Erikson in a dream-like sequence on the foggy shores of Cape Cod. Right away you're able to grasp how witty and wise Erikson is. Janko handles the many scenes of Anderson attaining enlightenment gracefully without veering into preachiness. He also avoids turning the emotionally resonant scenes into sappiness.
Anyone who calls Year by the Sea conventional or formulaic isn't paying close enough attention to the many little surprises that come along, including a revelation about Joan Anderson's literary agent, Liz (S. Epatha Merkerson), and how Anderson doesn't yield to the temptations of cheating on her husband, Robin, even though she could have if she wanted to. The way that she helps a waitress, Luce (Monique Curnen), to deal with her abusive, alcoholic husbands speaks volumes about how kind, selfless and considerate she is as a human being. Janko includes other telling details about her Anderson's character like when her husband suddenly laughs at something that he thought about. Instead of acting offended or shocked by saying "Stop laughing!", she asks him, with genuine compassion and a healthy dose of curiosity, "What's so funny?" Small, beautiful scene like that are part of what makes Year by the Sea such a treasure behold.
The scenery of Cape Cod becomes a character in itself with many awe-inspiring shots that would be best experienced on the big screen. The well-chosen music also helps to enrich the film. Moreover, each of the supporting characters feels lived-in, complex and interesting enough to even be turned into a protagonist. Although Anderson's husband does have flaws, he's far from a villain and has many redeeming qualities. The same can be said for Luce's abusive husband (Tyler Haines). Even the homeless man who shows up at the fish market to receive free food from John has an interesting backstory about how he became homeless. Janko clearly understands that the more specific a story is, the more universal it becomes. He also finds the right balance between light and dark elements---yes, many scenes are uplifting, but there's also some gentle, underlying sadness and tragedy lurking beneath the surface. Just like life itself, it would be difficult and unfair to lump Year by the Sea into a genre.
The talented Karen Allen anchors Year By the Sea with her radiance. She gives the best performance of her career, and Janko allows for her shine thanks to the beautifully-written screenplay. It's also quite refreshing for a modern film to have such a complex role for an actress, and to watch a film that can't be turned into a video game or that doesn't rely on sex or violence as a means of entertaining the audience. In a less sensitively-written film, the character of Joan Anderson would have had no inner life; in Year By the Sea you can grasp her inner life from start to finish which makes the film all the more exceptional, poignant and unforgettable. At a running time of 1 hour and 54 minutes, which breezes by like an hour, Year by the Sea is a life-affirming, breathtaking, and inspirational film that will nourish your heart, mind and soul. It's the perfect antidote to Hollywood's blockbusters. What a triumph! It would make for a great double feature with Under the Tuscan Sun, 45 Years and Muriel's Wedding.