Karen Allen Freshens Up a Stale Drama


Year By the Sea (2016) Poster

What do you do after you retire? Joan doesn’t know, especially since she isn’t retiring from a 9 to 5. Retiring from motherhood after 30 years doesn’t just mean losing responsibilities—it means losing part of her identity.

When both of Joan’s (Karen Allen) sons move out and her husband Robin (Michael Cristofer) announces a job transfer from their New York home to Wichita, she realizes it’s been a long time since she’s decided her life’s direction. Then she does something uncharacteristically rash: instead of moving to the Midwest with Robin, she drives to Cape Cod and rents a beach house until a time TBD. There she will sustain herself, take care of herself, and rediscover herself, even if it means she’s alone and commuting every day in a rowboat.

Year by the Sea, based on the memoirs of Joan Anderson, is Alexander Janko’s writing and directing debut, and well, it shows. The dialogue is painfully on-the-nose, making any metaphors that could have been subtext straight into textual conversations. Joan’s arc isn’t anything unfamiliar, either. We’ve seen Woody Allen types struggle to create their art and fall for younger, unavailable lovers before. The predictable plot benefits some from its female perspective—and from a woman over 40, no less—but it’s not enough of a twist to break the story free of its stale crust.

Year by the Sea, based on the memoirs of Joan Anderson, is Alexander Janko’s writing and directing debut, and well, it shows.

Karen Allen does what the script couldn’t, however. She brings a warmth and humanity to the drifting Joan. The best moments of this film are when she is acting silently, not just because of the absence of clunky lines, but because Allen shows Joan’s mind moving with every shot. Walking on the beach, rearranging pillows, and learning to steer a rowboat grows her story without any words. Every other character in this movie could have been replaced by a Best Friend, Misunderstanding Husband, or Quirky Neighbor from another movie, but Allen makes Joan real.

Karen Allen in Year by the Sea (2016)

A scan of Janko’s IMDb credits shows he’s been working over two decades on film scores, including composing the delightful, bouncy music for My Big Fat Greek Wedding. He composes the score here, too, and pairs it with knockoff Ingrid Michaelson songs to accompany the frequent nature shot montages between scenes. These interludes let Allen and the Cape Cod scenery shine, and to his credit, they feel like the deep breaths Joan needs as she refocuses her future.

Without reading the source material, I can’t speak for Janko’s interpretation of Anderson’s book. Still, he brings an earnest joy and a penchant for the lovely to this narrative, which isn’t a bad trait in a first-time writer/director.