Categories: Film Reviews

‘Janet Planet’ Review: Annie Baker’s Mother-Daughter Dramedy Strikes the Perfect Balance of Humor and Melancholy

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Shot in Amherst, Massachusetts, Janet Planet (2023) focuses on eleven-year-old Lacy (Zoe Ziegler) and her mother, Janet (Emmy winner Julianne Nicholson of Mare of Eastown, August: Osage County), who live an unconventional, crunchy granola life. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Annie Baker’s directorial debut is divided into three acts corresponding with the three people that Janet brings into their space over the course of the summer through autumn of 1991. That space includes a home, a converted shed that Janet works from as an acupuncturist, which sports a sign with the movie title, and the surrounding patch of verdant land. It is a perfect independent film.

Lacy lives a solitary life but does not enjoy being alone. Lacy is not like other kids. She is unaccustomed to living a carefree life like most kids her age and is insecure about not being around her mom. She plays with a makeshift dollhouse filled with quotidian mementos and marches down the dirt road to meet with her piano teacher. Janet is the opposite and has no problem keeping herself occupied as if she is child free. Lacy usually finds ways to fit into Janet’s life and thread herself into the gaps of her mother’s love so that she does not disrupt Janet’s time with the adults in her life, but she is beginning to silently question her mom’s judgment as she evaluates the people whom Janet prioritizes. Occasionally Janet defers to Lacy’s counsel and recognizes the flaws in her social partners. Janet is a bit of a pick me who has a talent for preferring guys who are not always the best for her.

There is the laconic Wayne (Will Patton), whose influence over the atmosphere and Janet expands and contracts proportional to Lacy’s presence and their relationship. Baker depicts this iteration of a family unit in long, quiet shots that reflect their togetherness but psychological distance from each other. When Lacy and Wayne share a space, he moves, and she gets out of the way, which portends a silent conflict over Janet. Lacy prefers to sleep with her mom in her bed, but Janet reports that Wayne thinks that it is weird. In another shot, Lacy sneaks into the pair’s bedroom, and Wayne fills the frame with Janet barely visible. If Lacy asks Wayne an invasive question, he does not answer, and Lacy’s questions reflect a parentification role where she is making sure that her mom has not put them in a precarious position. Do not worry tenderhearted viewers. Wayne never does anything wrong per se, but the great Patton silently commits to the role of a withdrawn troubled man who could be a latent threat and is at least unsuitable company while needing it all the same.

Then there is the unusual, spontaneous reunion between Janet and an old friend, Regina (Academy Award nominee Sophie Okonedo, Hotel Rwanda), an actor in an alternative outdoor theater troupe, who had a fling with the theater group leader, Avi (Elias Koteas), and is ready to move on. Nicholson is amazing at giving hugs, and her chemistry with Okonedo was so organic that it felt as if they knew each other for years. Janet and Regina rekindle their friendship, and in contrast to Wayne, Regina has the capacity to have one-on-one interactions with Lacy, who enjoys being included. Baker and Godland cinematographer Maria von Hausswolff shoot these scenes with either Regina or Lacy near each other with the camera holding them together in a medium shot. For instance, before a car ride, Regina reveals to Lacy that Janet can afford her lifestyle because Janet inherited $30,000. When a late-night pot-influenced talking session between Janet and Regina gets too real for Janet, Janet discards her hippie routine and judges Regina for accepting Janet’s offer to help while Regina accepts the condemnation quietly and refrains from calling out Janet’s privilege. After that moment, a permanent wedge of resentment lodges between the group, and while Regina never confronts Janet verbally, she expresses frustration over Lacy using her shampoo without asking. Regina becomes more distant with Lacy, the bathroom door between them or Lacy secretly watching Regina at work from a distant vantagepoint. Though a responsible adult should exclude her from some of the activities, Lacy acts as a silent witness to another one of her mother’s flaws that she may have inherited: an inability to keep friends.

In the third act, it is time for Lacy to return to school, but she allegedly does not feel well. Lacy parrots her mother, “I hate antibiotics.” Janet kindles a new unlikely relationship. The final scene with Janet and her new beau will spark lots of debate or confusion with viewers. Without spoiling the provocative theme, Janet’s actions reveal that she wants to escape her child and uses a revolving door of guests to do so, which partially explains why those relationships do not last. She does not have any real standards, just a plausible cover story as an excuse not to tend to her sick kid, who is clingy on a good day. It is a sympathetic, relatable impulse. Lacy is smothering, and Janet deserves to have a life outside her child, but she has also set up this dynamic as the adult. There is no reference to a father or why the other parent does not have visitation. Lacy does not realize that she is not receiving the child experience because while there is genuine warmth and love between the mother and daughter, there is no joy with one exception.

Janet Planet mostly contains diegetic sounds, not a soundtrack, except when Lacy meets Wayne’s daughter, Sequoia (Edie Moon Kearns). The camera and music explode into action mimicking the girls’ excitement at instant connection and friendship. Lacy is capable of at least starting age-appropriate relationships if given the opportunity. Being subject to adults’ whims and fancies is a big part of childhood, but for Lacy, it is magnified. The final scene is an emblematic visual metaphor for Lacy’s rearing: the only child in a sea of adults while Janet swims, looking happy but searching for a lifejacket to anchor her.

Do not let this bleak assessment fool you. Janet Planet is a joy to watch thanks to the brilliant lead and child actor Ziegler in her first film acting role. The entire ensemble cast is so natural that it is easy to forget that they are acting even though a handful of the actors are recognizable and have brand names. Even though the general theme is melancholic, hilarious moments dominate such as Lacy’s penchant for being melodramatic in the opening scene when she calls Janet or casually comments on her life in a weariness disproportionate to her years on Earth. Lacy confesses to Janet, “Every moment of my life is hell…I don’t think it will last though.” Baker’s transition from the stage to the screen is seamless with a sparse dialogue that could have been captured in the wild of Western Massachusetts with a time machine and a fierce obedience to showing instead of telling. Many film directors make movies that feel like plays, but Baker has no such proclivity. Her camera is dynamic when necessary and still when appropriate. The composition within every frame tells the entire narrative in a snapshot.

Baker’s storytelling skills are sensitive and empathetic for each character. Baker treats Lacy more seriously than any other character. She is a real child, not a brat or some Star Search polished child performer giving realness. Janet feels like a real person. When she sits in her car after an outdoor picnic, before turning the key in the ignition, she chomps on some cold chicken, which a perfect, mythical mother goddess would never do It is a story about people attempting an alternative approach to life to escape one form of oppression just to find that the chaos of liberation comes with its own dangers and wounds. Impact never equals intent. Also, Janet is still stuck in a regressive mindset no matter how far she believes that she has come, especially in terms of gender norms, sexuality, socioeconomic factors and privilege. While parentification is abuse, Janet is the one who may truly be needy and aimless without her daughter’s guidance or a man’s gaze of validation. In a world where villainizing mothers is easy, Janet remains sympathetic despite all her flaws.

With such an auspicious start, it will be exciting to see what Baker and Ziegler do after Janet Planet. It is refreshing when a film does not give into melodramatic setups and nothing much happens. Cinema exists to magnify a certain type of transcendent magic that can easily be missed until one reflects upon the past with nostalgia. Even though the particular year may not be memorable—it marked the end of the Soviet Union and Operation Desert Storm, the movie evokes the timeless aimlessness of summer for an old soul in a kid’s body with only adults for company. Add this masterpiece to a list of must-see films if you love understated independent films.

Grade: A

A24 will release Janet Planet only in theaters in Los Angeles and New York June 21 and nationwide on June 28.

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