Janet Planet finds simple beauty in a close mother-daughter relationship

click to enlarge Janet Planet finds simple beauty in a close mother-daughter relationship
Courtesy of A24
Janet Planet's quiet drama is stellar.

The name of Julianne Nicholson's title character in Janet Planet is no coincidence, since she represents pretty much the entire world to her anxious, introverted 11-year-old daughter, Lacy (Zoe Ziegler). Writer/director Annie Baker presents a few months in the lives of Janet and Lacy, as they pass a languid summer in rural western Massachusetts in 1991, experiencing a series of quiet but important milestones.

"Quiet" is the operative word for this slow, contemplative film, which features minimal dialogue and invites the audience to sit with the characters for extended, sometimes uncomfortable stretches. It's far from unpleasant, though, and even the discomfort is amiable, in a way — a method of bonding with the characters as they struggle through mundane tasks or awkward conversations. When Baker presents every excruciating note of Lacy's piano practice, it's not to challenge the viewer, but to convey Lacy's calm dedication.

"Every moment of my life is hell," Lacy says to her mother as they lie in bed one night, but as Janet points out, Lacy actually seems quite happy, and there's nothing hellish about her existence or the process of watching it unfold. Despite its austere presentation, Janet Planet is joyful and often funny, with a deadpan sense of humor that Baker establishes in the opening scene. Stuck at summer camp, Lacy leaves her bunk in the middle of the night and calls Janet, claiming that she'll kill herself if Janet doesn't pick her up. She's not suicidal, just needy and melodramatic, and Ziegler plays her with a mix of precociousness and insecurity.

Janet Planet is punctuated by title cards referring to people that Janet brings into her life — relationships that Lacy observes but doesn't necessarily understand. First is Janet's unstable boyfriend Wayne (Will Patton), who isn't much of a father figure for Lacy. In the movie's most upbeat, entertaining sequence, Lacy, Janet and Wayne meet up with Wayne's daughter Sequoia (Edie Moon Kearns) at a gloriously hideous indoor mall, where Lacy and Sequoia become fast friends. Later, Lacy pointedly asks Wayne why Sequoia doesn't live with him part of the time, and he pointedly doesn't answer.

The most substantial outside presence comes from Janet's old friend Regina (Sophie Okonedo), member of a cult-like New Age-y theater troupe. Janet works as an acupuncturist and seems entirely at home within the local hippie culture, but even she is slightly suspicious of theater director and possible cult leader Avi (Elias Koteas). Regina moves in with Janet and Lacy, and they form a more effective makeshift family than they ever did with Wayne, even if Regina's residency is equally temporary.

As those other adults come and go, the bond between Janet and Lacy remains strong, in the way that aimless single parents and their prematurely self-possessed children often cling to each other. Nicholson is excellent as a woman slowly starting to figure out her life as she enters middle age, but the movie belongs to Ziegler in her debut role, making Lacy alternately sympathetic and frustrating. She may be too blunt and demanding at times, but the relationship between mother and daughter is affecting and honest, and Baker never manufactures any phony conflict between them.

Baker, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright making her film debut, is more interested in the small details that shape our life experiences, like Lacy lying on the couch watching daytime TV while home sick from school. Almost all of the movie is depicted from Lacy's perspective, so that adult conversations that happen just out of earshot are inaudible to the viewer, too. It's only toward the end that Baker switches the point of view, in a somewhat jarring shift into magical-realist territory that doesn't quite work.

That shift falls flat because the rest of the movie is so appealingly naturalistic, gorgeously shot on 16mm film that makes it look like vintage home movies. The sound design is infused with the noises of bugs and other creatures surrounding Janet and Lacy's country home, emphasizing their isolation and their connection with nature. They're on their own beautiful, insular planet, but it's a warm, inviting place that the movie allows the audience to visit, to get cozy and to appreciate the everyday wonders.

Three Stars Janet Planet
Rated PG-13
Directed by Annie Baker
Starring Julianne Nicholson, Zoe Ziegler, Sophie Okonedo

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