Longtime writer and composer Alexander Janko’s directorial debut, Year by the Sea, is a Hallmark Hall of Fame-type drama that ebbs and flows with the tide, mostly treacly and predictable but led by a lovely, understated performance by Karen Allen. Allen plays real-life writer Joan Anderson, author of the film’s source book, A Year by the Sea: Thoughts of an Unfinished Woman. After her older son, Andrew (Tyler Haines), gets married and her husband, Robin Wilcox (Pulitzer Prize winner Michael Cristofer), gets transferred to Wichita, Joan suddenly decides to set off on a new adventure by herself, moving to a ramshackle house in Cape Cod that is reachable only by rowboat across Narragansett Bay. She quickly gets a job working for fishmonger John Cahoon (Yannick Bisson); becomes friends with the impulsive, free-spirited Joan Erikson (Olivier Award winner Celia Imrie), who is married to famed developmental psychiatrist Erik Erikson (Alvin Epstein); and tries to help Luce (Monique Curnen), who is in an abusive relationship with Billy (Kohler McKenzie). Meanwhile, Judy (Jane Hajduk), who is married to John, is suspicious of how close Joan A. and her husband are getting. And then Joan’s agent, Liz Bloomington (S. Epatha Merkerson), arrives, trying to get her client back on track with her next book.
Allen (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Starman), who won acting awards at six film festivals for the role, is charming as Joan, her eyes fraught with emotion yet now open to new possibilities ever since her husband asked her, “Why can’t you ever be satisfied with what we have?” She balances determination and uncertainty with a graceful ease. Despite being based on fact, the film’s narrative struggles to avoid clichés, with sappy, overly sentimental dialogue that often devolves into New Age speak and silly plot twists relating to freedom and finding one’s true self. Even the score, which was composed by Janko (Anastasia, My Big Fat Greek Wedding), is cloying, as are the original songs by indie duo the Weepies. The Cape Cod setting is beautiful and it’s heartwarming to see three key roles for women over sixty, but that’s not quite enough to hold it all together. Year by the Sea opens September 8 at Lincoln Plaza, with Janko, Allen, and producer Laura Goodenow participating in a Q&A following the 7:20 show that evening.