Film & Television

Karen Allen Learns about Life, Love and Clamming in Year by the Sea


As Joan, Allen is in equal parts introspective and effervescent. In early scenes, at her son’s wedding where she learns that her husband has already planned their relocation, her face conveys betrayal and heartbreak, but mostly spiritual fatigue. She really isn’t asking for much. She wants to be seen. She wants a chance to learn who she is and to like that person again. When she asks her husband why he loves her, he mishears and answers “Yes.” No, she explains, she wants to know why. “Because husbands love their wives,” he tells her thoughtlessly. If it’s the thought that counts, Joan clearly isn’t getting what she needs. She’s been a wife. She’s been a mother. Now, she needs to be herself. Her situation is deeply and distinctly female.

In addition to the director, there are two men who add to the success of Year by the Sea. Veteran actor (and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright) Michael Cristofer somehow adds humanity to the otherwise cold character of husband Robin. And, Canadian actor Yannick Bisson is appealing as Joan’s new friend and possible love interest, local fisherman Cahoon. But, fine performances from these gents aside, this is a movie for and about women, first and foremost.

In fact, female friendships in the film are exuberant and celebrated. Joan is aided in her seaside “vision quest” by a group of especially vibrant women. The marvelous S. Epatha Merkerson (Law & Order, Chicago Med) plays Liz, Joan’s editor and best friend. Celia Imrie (The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Bridget Jones’s Diary) is a delight as a fellow “Joan,” who becomes a mentor and impromptu seaside dance teacher. And Monique Gabriela Curnen (The Dark Knight, Contagion) is Luce, a local shopkeeper with an abusive boyfriend. Through Luce, Joan is given a chance to be a mentor herself. She draws on the strength and her years of motherhood to guide and protect the younger woman. It’s a nice touch, depicting an inner strength that Joan herself may have forgotten about.

As expected, Year by the Sea makes the most of its glorious location. Joan clams with Cahoon and swims with seals. The beaches of off-season Cape Cod have a wistful beauty that encourages contemplation and soul-searching (and, apparently, best sellers and feature films). Cinematographer Bryan Papierski makes the most of the surroundings, while Janko’s score perfectly complements the view.

Year by the Sea is a fairly quiet movie, as it should be. The real Anderson’s revelations weren’t exactly earth-shattering and her adventures weren’t the stuff of big-budget special effects or computer game spinoffs. Joan finds herself because she slows down and listens, really listens, to her own needs and wants, to nature and the day-to-day rhythms of the village she’s become a temporary part of.

The movie probably won’t appeal to young audiences or to impatient adults. But, that’s okay. For those of us who sometimes find ourselves missing who we once were or thought we might become, the movie’s lovely cast, resonant message, and gentle joys are as welcome as a day by (if not, sigh, a year by) the sea.

Join the conversation

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

  • Cks September 12, 2017 at 6:59 pm

    I have a copy of ‘Year By The Sea’, signed by the author. She signed it “always unfinished”.