So few movies exist about the inner lives of older women, and so few movies star the ever-radiant Karen Allen, that one wants to be kinder to “Year by the Sea” than it deserves. So I’ll say this: If you have a taste for voyages of personal growth in which the dialogue is written in the style of inspirational greeting cards, for small-town whimsy spread as thick as Marmite, for periodic beach-frolic montages set to sensitive soft rock music, and for self-help empowerment delivered as earnestly and enthusiastically as possible, by all means run to see this movie. If you have an aversion to any or all these things, run as fast as you can in the other direction.
There does exist a happy audience for author Joan Anderson’s “A Year by the Sea,” the 1999 memoir of how an empty-nester found renewed purpose by leaving her husband and moving to Cape Cod, and they probably want a movie that spells out that journey as clearly as possible. And in the opening scenes, as Joan looks out over the grown sons who no longer need her and a callous husband (Michael Cristofer) who no longer seems to love her, Allen makes the character’s slow-motion heartbreak feel genuine and true.
Once Joan leaves Douchey McDoucheface and spontaneously rents a cabin, there are lessons to be learned: how to row a boat in the fog, what to do when there’s a pump instead of a faucet in your sink. She and the movie both seem surprised that there are seals on Cape Cod and that you can go look at them whenever you want.
Wellfleet in the offseason looks lovely, of course, and Hatch’s Fish Market has been given over to a handsome young fisherman-proprietor (Yannick Bisson) to discreetly flirt with Joan. Other characters include an abused shopkeeper (Monique Gabriela Curnen) whose loutish boyfriend (Kohler McKenzie) won’t let her be an artist, and Erikson (Celia Imrie), the local free spirit.
This last character nearly sinks the movie all by herself. Erikson coaxes Joan into dress-up charades, joyrides on the beach, and art projects to let her “weave that wisdom into the fabric.” She drops little Salada tea-bag tags of wisdom like “the real loneliness is not knowing who you are” and “to love someone is to release them.” She is the life force embodied until it gives you a migraine.
Filmmaker Alexander Janko is a movie composer making his directing debut; he has adapted Anderson’s memoir using the same baldly emotive style with which he scores the music. (A rock group appropriately called the Weepies provides the tunes for the beach frolics.) “Year by the Sea” is for audiences who don’t trust the shiftiness of nuance and craft, of messages that rise up from dramatic situations rather than being pasted on top of them, and who would prefer their life lessons stated loudly and for maximum applicability.
For this doubter, the only aspect that makes the movie work is Allen’s full-hearted performance. The actress still carries our affection from long-ago hits like “Animal House,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” and “Starman,” and her years in the wilderness — all right, Great Barrington, where she runs a clothing boutique — have weathered her with grace rather than Hollywood additives. She is in touch with the discontent coursing through Joan and all those other Joans out there in the dark, and she honors their journey back toward the light of self-worth. She’s the wisdom in this movie’s synthetic fabric.
YEAR BY THE SEA
Written and directed by Alexander Janko, based on the book by Joan Anderson. Starring Karen Allen, Celia Imrie, Michael Cristofer, S. Epatha Merkerson. At West Newton. 114 minutes. Unrated (as PG: mild language).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.