The attempt to present the protagonist’s personal journey as feminist empowerment only serves to highlight the shallowness and banality of the film.
No one takes pleasure in critiquing the rare film starring an actress over the age of 60 that focuses on the nature of middle-aged female life. Such projects are too few to not cherish. But writer/director Alexander Janko’s Year by the Sea is a dismally pat depiction of such a character on an existential journey to discover her purpose in life. For one thing, it would be nice to have a film depict a woman confident in her own existence, but this adaptation of Joan Anderson’s memoir shows its protagonist hardly capable of defining herself outside of her role as wife and mother. And that’s even after she’s been on her year-long vision quest.
Certainly, women have not always been allowed to be more than the sum of their husband and children’s success. But that’s hardly the case for a modern woman such as Joan (Karen Allen). Joan Anderson herself has written a handful of memoirs, from the one adapted here – subtitled Thoughts of an Unfinished Woman – to such titles as An Unfinished Marriage, A Weekend to Change Your Life and Second Journey: The Road Back to Yourself. The theme is clear; Anderson focuses on the work required to achieve self-satisfaction as well as to maintain a balanced relationship in marriage. Although it seems implausible that you can refocus your life in a single weekend.
The impetus for the film is the great upheaval in Joan’s life catalyzed by the marriage of her youngest son. Consider Year by the Sea as the extreme reaction of an empty-nester, although it’s less extreme when coupled with the fact that her husband, Robin (Michael Cristofer), opts to relocate halfway across the country for work and never consults with his wife about the decision or the plans to put their house on the market. The cliché line, “I feel a bit like a boat, adrift. Nothing to steady me,” rightfully earns eye rolls, but Joan does have her entire life (and home) ripped out from under her. The seed of her year-by-the-sea idea, however, is directly planted by her son’s wedding toast, which is all about continuing to have adventures with his wife. The fact that Robin has no interest in joining Joan in her great Cape Cod adventure only illustrates to her more how much they have grown apart. That and the statement “You’re a hard woman to love.”
But Joan puts Robin and her former life out of mind when she arrives in Cape Cod, relishing the chance to be no one but who she is in the moment, rowing out to her secluded island rental house. She meets her dancing doppelganger in the mist, Joan Erikson (Celia Imrie), a woman who later writes Joan a poem about letting things take their time and enjoying the slow pace of life. They explore the seaside town together with forced awe. At the top of the lighthouse, Joan shouts, “This would be a great place for a vision quest!” Seriously. As written by Janko, Joan’s writing career is a complete afterthought; we see no evidence of that aspect of her life whatsoever, so that, when it is vaguely mentioned at one point, it seems like more of a thin attempt to give her something by which to define herself. When the Joan duo meet up with Joan’s editor for a girls’ night, they begin sharing stories of their recent experiences because “if we can’t share our feelings, we might as well be men.”
The film emphasizes Joan regaining her womanhood as she regains herself. Janko’s script relies on such simplistic women-versus-men statements as the one above. This applies especially to the ties between Joan and Robin and their rigidly conforming gender roles, even though that has little bearing on their personal problems. And, despite the fact that Joan embarks on this journey to reconnect with her self, singular, an inexplicable romance seems to blossom with a local crabber, John Cahoon (Yannick Bisson). The fact that it doesn’t go anywhere makes it all the more unnecessary. Overall, there’s little here in the writing or the filmmaking to distinguish Year by the Sea. Janko settles into a rote pattern of alternating scenes with montages of island scenery put to poppy music.
As with other films about self-actualization, the notion that Joan faces a life-altering moment in her obnoxiously comfortable life is fairly absurd and hard to swallow. It’s not easy for any couple to establish two new homes, let alone a person to rent out a seaside house indefinitely with little to no income. And her feelings vis-à-vis Robin fail to follow a coherent arc, as she writes about separating from her husband to grow as a person only to accept him back when he returns with an explanation for a suspect jewelry receipt and a ring. That last-minute turn in the story rings untrue for Joan or any woman questioning her relationship with a spouse. Above all, the attempt to present Joan’s personal journey as feminist empowerment only serves to highlight the shallowness and banality of the film.