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Identity Crisis

Joan Anderson’s A Year by the Sea hits local screens

by Rebecca M. Alvin

On an early morning in May of 2015, a small crew made their way out to the beach at Indian Neck in Wellfleet. Leading the way was director Alexander Janko with producer Laura Goodenow at his side. Off to the side sat author Joan Anderson watching as actress Karen Allen played her in a film adaptation of her memoir A Year by the Sea. Having picked the one day that week that dense fog did not descend upon the Outer Cape, the crew fire up their fog machine, bringing a little bit of Hollywood to the rustic shore.

Celia Imrie in Year By The Sea.

In an interview that same week, Janko said he never considered shooting somewhere else for this film, which is set on Cape Cod, despite the difficulties filming on location can bring up. “Artistically, for me it always had to be on the Cape. The Cape is a character in the story. You cannot tell the story I wanted to tell filming somewhere else,” he said at the time.

Just about two years later, the film is in release, having premiered locally at the Cape Cinema in Dennis. It’s currently at Waters Edge Cinema here in Provincetown as well as on screen at the Chatham Orpheum Theater until Friday, when it will open at Wellfleet Cinemas. According to Anderson, the audiences have been much larger than she ever expected and the responses have been wonderful, too.

Joan Anderson on the set of the film Year by the Sea.  Photo: Rebecca M. Alvin

“I’m amazed at the applause. Almost every time I’m in the theater there’s applause,” she says incredulously. “And I’m amazed at the men’s reactions, they are pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t a ‘chick flick.’”

Anderson’s books have long been popular, particularly among middle-aged to older women. She actually wrote a trio of memoirs, beginning with A Year by the Sea and followed by An Unfinished Marriage and A Walk on the Beach, all of which have been translated into many languages and made it to the New York Times bestseller list. Although the film is primarily focused on that first book (which was featured on Oprah), which told of Anderson’s midlife decision to leave her husband and her middle-class suburban life behind to live in a cottage on the Cape and find herself after her children had grown up, she says the other two books also informed the film because each adds greater dimension to other characters in the story, such as her husband and a friend she met on the Cape, Joan Erikson (played by Celia Imrie in the film), wife of the renowned psychologist Erik Erikson, and a psychologist of note herself.

“Joan Erikson and her husband coined that term ‘Identity Crisis,’ and here I am running into her and I’m in one. It was unbelievable,” recalls Anderson.

While the usual Hollywood depiction of this period in life is focused on men, complete with their stereotypical midlife affair with a younger woman, growth of a ponytail or trendy facial hair, and the requisite little red sports car, the crisis in this film (and in Anderson’s real life) has a decidedly different tone to it. Perhaps it was not so much a crisis as a graceful, if unexpected, transition into a new phase of her life. In fact, Anderson ultimately did get back together with her husband, strengthening their marriage in the process, she says.

S. Epatha Merkerson (Liz), Karen Allen (Joan) and Celia Imrie (Erikson) toast to friendship while overlooking Nauset Harbor in Year By The Sea. Photo: Dana Starbard/Year By The Sea © 2016

In the film, Anderson, played by Allen makes the decision to leave her husband rather quickly—almost too quickly it would seem—upon learning that he is being transferred by his job to the Midwest. But Anderson says that is really how it happened.

“I sort of all of a sudden realized that the kids were gone, he was leaving, this guy that I was writing children’s books for, he was leaving town,” she recalls. And when her husband said they were moving, she was shocked. “I just knew in my gut that I couldn’t go. So it happened that quickly. Now, the marriage was going stale at the time, and as things were ending nothing new was coming in. And that’s when life does get scary and weird and boring and everything else, but I  knew this was my one time to jump ship. I knew it.”

Some may look at the film and see a woman finally finding her true self after a lifetime of taking care of others, while others may see a privileged woman who takes her “me time” at the expense of a caring and bewildered husband. But the message of the film (and the books) is also about the capacity for growth extending beyond midlife and continuing until the end of one’s life. In Erik Erikson’s most significant work, co-authored with wife, Joan, they identify eight stages of growth in psychosocial development, ending with Age 65 – Death. But shortly after he died, Joan, then in her nineties, continued their research and wrote of a ninth stage, occurring between the age of 80 and death, as distinct from the eighth.  Although popular culture may dismiss people (women, in particular) once they pass midlife, there is continued growth there, and with people living longer and longer, we are foolish to ignore the stories, issues, and ideas of people who are no longer young but still have half their lives to live.

“There’s a wonderful quote from St. Augustine: ‘The unexamined life is the wasted life.’ This film I think gives you permission to really get to know yourself before you die. And then hopefully, if you know yourself,  you go on this journey and you become a more viable, likable, passionate, purposeful person, and that’s attractive to the person you’re living with, or threatening. It’ s one or the other,” Anderson says. “It’s a tragedy if we all don’t live our lives at some point the way perhaps we were meant to before we were attached to so many people.”

Year by the Sea is showing at Waters Edge Cinema, 237 Commercial St., 2nd Fl., Provincetown through Thursday, June 8. It will open at Wellfleet Cinemas, 51 State Hwy., Rte. 6, on Friday, June 9. For the Provincetown screenings, call 508.487.FILM or visit For Wellfleet screening times call 508.349.7176 or visit


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Ginger Mountain (MS Communications Media, BA Fine Arts/Teaching Certification K-12) has been part of the graphic design team at Provincetown Magazine since 2008. Ginger has worked as a creative director, individual contractor, and freelance designer with clients representing many areas —business software, consumer products, professional services, entertainment, and network hardware to name just a few — providing creative layout and development of a wide range of print media content. Her clients ranged from small local businesses to large corporations and Fortune 500 companies, from New Hampshire to Georgia

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