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Movie review: Memoir-based 'Year By the Sea' considers self-discovery through marital separation

POSTED: October 3, 2017 9:09 a.m.
Josh Terry/

S. Epatha Merkerson as Liz, Karen Allen as Joan and Celia Imrie as Erikson toast to friendship in "Year by the Sea."

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"YEAR BY THE SEA" — 2½ stars — Karen Allen, Yannick Bisson, S. Epatha Merkerson, Celia Imrie, Monique Gabriela Curnen; not rated; Jordan Commons, Legacy Crossing

Director Alexander Janko's "Year By the Sea" feels a little too much like a self-help book disguised as a movie.

The film, based on author Joan Anderson's book, tells the story of a woman who separates from her longtime husband on a quest to find herself. We meet Joan (Karen Allen) at her son's wedding reception, a happy occasion that is spoiled when she learns secondhand that her husband Robin (Michael Cristofer) has put their home up for sale. Things have been tough financially, but Joan is still angry that Robin made such a move without letting her know.

The lack of communication is one symptom of a marriage that has become strained over years of routine. Joan and Robin still love each other, but as Joan points out, it has been a long time since they had an adventure together. So when Joan fails to persuade Robin to have an adventure now, she decides to have an adventure by herself.

Joan rents a small cottage in Cape Cod, relocating north while Robin heads west to Kansas. The cottage is rudimentary at best — only the outdated cellphones betray a 21st-century setting — and Joan has to take a rowboat to even reach her new residence. There's a vague plan to write a book — bolstered by her publisher friend Liz (S. Epatha Merkerson) — but for the most part, Joan is going into her new circumstances with a blank itinerary.

Eager to dive into her new adventure, Joan begins engaging the locals, convincing a clam fisherman named Cahoon (Yannick Bisson) to take her out to see the sunbathing seals offshore, and later she picks up a job working at his market. She also becomes friendly with the cottage manager Luce (Monique Gabriela Curnen), who is struggling with an abusive relationship with her boyfriend Billy (Kohler McKenzie).

Joan's closest friendship is formed with another Joan (Celia Imrie), a lively older woman who speaks and behaves like she's living in a parallel universe. Joan No. 2 just appears out of the fog one morning, and at times you wonder if her character is real or just the protagonist's subconscious creation.

Through her time at the cottage, she keeps in contact with Robin, who even comes out to visit but still seems entrenched in his own gruff loneliness. The tension in their relationship is really the only conflict that drives a film that seems mostly content to meander through its narrative.

"Year By the Sea” — which comes from a production conglomerate that includes a company called Real Women Make Waves — has its moments, and it benefits from a peaceful and scenic setting. Joan will no doubt be relatable for many longtime spouses who have spent their lifetimes focused on the needs of their children.

But a strange abundance of musical interludes, periodic awkward silliness (goofy lines like, "Have you ever looked up at a tree from the grass's perspective?"), and a forced nod toward romantic tension between Joan and Cahoon mute the film's impact. Some may be inspired by Joan's experience, but others may wish Janko would have picked up the pace.

"Year By the Sea" is not rated; running time: 114 minutes.

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