About halfway through playwright Annie Baker’s self-assured and pitch-perfect directorial debut Janet Planet, 11-year-old Lacy (Zoe Ziegler) rolls over in bed and turns to her mother Janet (Julianne Nicholson) with an innocent prompt. “You know what’s funny?” she asks. “Every moment of my life is hell.” At such a gentle moment, in such a casual way, she delivers a melodramatic gut-punch. You can’t help choking out a laugh. 

Throughout this existential comedy, lighthearted coming-of-age drama, and sublime slice of Western Massachusetts life, Lacy has a habit of expressing herself in unintentionally funny, wounding ways to her mother. It’s a characteristic that’s baked into their codependent relationship that Lacy struggles to maintain in the months before she begins sixth grade. An outcast amongst her peers, she tests her mother’s patience and devotion, threatening to kill herself if she doesn’t help her escape summer camp. Later, as she settles back home, Lacy insists they still sleep in the same bed. 

Janet wants to correct these “bad patterns” but knows she has her own to solve as well. Mostly, her taste in romantic partners. Baker chapters her movie––set in 1991––around the people that enter Janet’s life: there’s Wayne (Will Patton), a stoic, migraine-plagued single father; Regina (Sophie Okonedo), a old friend who has just left a toxic relationship; and Avi (Elias Koteas), Regina’s ex, a creative director at a nearby experimental theater troupe. Their presence––oft-unexplained, sometimes hurtful, rarely beneficial––shapes the arc of Lacy’s summer. It also influences her feelings towards her mother, a licensed acupuncturist practicing an earthy, crunchy lifestyle around their secluded, verdant property.

Baker has been impressive ever since debuting her breakthrough The Flick, an off-Broadway production that follows three employees at a run-down movie theater around Worcester, Mass. That three-hour-long play mostly follows their daily cleaning duties––wiping counters, mopping floors, sucking up popcorn. It won the Obie in 2013 and was awarded a Pulitzer in 2014. Like all her plays, there’s not much dialogue or interior exposition. Baker revels in the silence and still, in-between moments.

Those same qualities come through here. Seen through Lacy’s eyes, Janet Planet follows its young protagonist’s daily routines throwing tea parties with a stable of clay figurines and walking to an elderly neighbor’s home for piano lessons. Baker keeps her camera focused on these artistic endeavors––she watches Lacy squeeze small squirts of JuicyJuice into miniature cups and observes her little fingers tickling the keyboard through the completion of a full song. It’s a slower––no less fulfilling––cinema à la Kelly Reichardt, whose most recent feature Showing Up also revels in watching artists meticulously hone their craft and observe the world around them. 

With such a deliberate style, there’s a tendency to lose the rhythm and sense of momentum. But Baker casts a warm, humid spell with her keen eye and ear––she uses up the entire width of the frame with compositions that provoke mystery, and builds an organic soundscape of bird calls and cricket chirps that lull you into Lacy’s world. That leaves room to appreciate the different energies within Janet’s home––whether that’s Wayne’s quiet, unnerving dinners on the back patio, or Regina’s stoned, late-night conversations that turn judgmental. Baker’s static, nostalgic 16mm camera imbues an almost memory-like quality to these dynamics, as though they’re snapshots of the past taking place in the present. 

One can constantly sense Lacy’s brain processing as adults (and occasionally friends, like Wayne’s daughter, Sequoia) enter and exit her life. She might have trouble grasping the complexities of her mother’s relationships, but she still manages to hold her accountable. “I think you have to break up with him,” she tells Janet one day about Wayne. Spectacled with coarse red hair, Ziegler is a thrill to watch. Despite the shortage of dialogue, she gives Lacy an inner curiosity and imagination (her skeptical gaze often narrows into her mother’s earrings or the hair on someone’s neck) that’s betrayed by the burden of needing to parent the adult central to her life. 

This problem has always plagued Janet, who realizes her easy ability to trap men into falling in love with her. “I think it’s ruined my life,” she tells Lacy. Though these are heady concepts for her daughter to grasp, they epitomize the strangely mature connection they share. Nicholson’s understated performance, often bathed in the forest’s natural glow, cements this obscured bond. She maximizes her limited opportunities to share Janet’s background and behavior, finding ways through expressions, long pauses, and earnest responses that encourage compassion even in unwarranted moments. Her small, careful smiles mask a fragile, melancholic state that Lacy seems on the precipice of grasping. 

Baker has described Janet Planet as a story about “falling out of love with your mother.” You can see the slow drips of that process––the sudden emergence of a girl ready to start building her own identity, who might not need to share her mother’s bed as she drifts to sleep anymore. But there’s also an overwhelming warmth in the way this small fracture exposes itself. In her pivot to a new medium, Baker has captured a portrait of two people striving and struggling to grow alongside––and separate from––each other with such natural grace and confidence. Why can’t all transitions feel this easy? 

Janet Planet screened at New York Film Festival and will be released by A24 in 2024.

Grade: A-

No more articles