Janet Planet

In rural Western Massachusetts, 11-year-old Lacy spends the summer of 1991 at home, enthralled by her own imagination and the attention of her mother, Janet. As the months pass, three visitors enter their orbit, all captivated by Janet and her spellbinding nature. In her solitary moments, Lacy inhabits an inner world so extraordinarily detailed that it begins to seep into the outside world.

  • Released:
  • Runtime: 113 minutes
  • Genre: Drama
  • Stars: Laura Litterer, Raky Sastri, Mary Beth Brooker, Matthew Glassman, Jeremy Louise Eaton, John Peitso, George Marshall, Carolyn Walker, Will Patton, Zoe Ziegler, Sophie Okonedo, Elias Koteas, Julianne Nicholson, Abby Harri, Mary Shultz
  • Director:
  • septimus_millenicom - 3 July 2024
    The luminous Nicholson, and an auspicious directing debut by Annie Baker
    Janet Planet is not just the film's title and signage in front of Julianne Nicholson's titular character's acupuncture clinic. According to the end credits it is also the name of a theater/music group, likely affiliated with writer-director Annie Baker. The name clearly means a great deal.

    In the early 90s, bespectacled Lacy (11 year-old, just about the director's age) skips summer camp and returns home to stay with her mother in rural Massachusetts. Lacy has no friend or boy-crush (the two have a typically deadpan discussion about her plan to become a lesbian). When not directing imaginary plays starring mannequins in her doll-house, putting them to sleep or dressing them in candy wrappers, she vies for attention among Janet's friends and lovers.

    The recovering hippie Janet cuts a frustrated figure, seldom smiling or showing physical tenderness. (Lacy's requests to hold hands are only reluctantly granted.) Janet comes from Culture, lines her house with books, listens only to classical music in her beat-up, boxy Corolla. She treats her daughter like the junior member of a long-married couple, regards Lacy's neediness and theatrics (threatening to kill herself to get out of summer camp) with quiet exasperation.

    When flirting with men, Janet carries the guilt of a cheating spouse, even asking Lacy for dating permission and advice. When other adults are around, she becomes radiant, flashing the shy-fragile-thoughtful Nicholson smile that makes Earth wobble on its axis and compels everyone to fall in love. The director seizes on this trait in the film's most memorable dialogue, delivered in bed with Janet's back to Lacy, who effectively fills in for the adult company Janet craves. She internalizes her mother's four-syllable words, the boyfriend's New Yorker magazine covers, and is even allowed to decide whether to take antibiotics for herself.

    One day, the fictionalized autobiographical film hints to us, such formative experiences will coalesce into a theater career already decorated with a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur Fellowship. Yet the film works equally well as a universal coming of age story, not necessarily handcuffed to elites in the intelligentsia. There is little overt literary allusion beyond a Rilke poem and skimming Jean Auer at the mall. Lacy is seldom shown reading; the film is all about her watching Janet, other people, and the inanimate objects around her. Like any antisocial pre-teen, interacting with random, stray items constitutes the largest part of her life, they ignite her wayward imagination. Ranging from the most exotic (masks and animal costumes worn by the hippie commune's theater troupe, an elaborate doll with layers of personas) to the most mundane (languid electric fans that give no relief, gaudy storefronts at the mall, the torn remnant of a magazine cover), these objects take on a life-or-death, talismanic intensity. Oddly enough, this laser-focused 90s-specificity is what makes the experience universal. I grew up in the decade before the director's, on a different continent, with a very different upbringing, and yet the heightened sense of wonder sprinkled about _Janet Planet_'s production design makes it by far the most vividly nostalgic film I have ever experienced. There is never a boring scene; every frame is filled with magic, threatening to bring long-forgotten memories to life.

    For a first-time director, Baker has managed exceptional framing (rendered in grainy film stock), natural lighting (you can feel summer giving way to fall on Lacy's skin), and memorable camera angles (one scene is shot from Lacy's beneath-the-furniture perspective; I wonder if the noted cinephile Baker has not lifted that from _In the Mood for Love_). An inspired picnic sequence ends with a "Battlestar Galactica" finale flourish. For such a decorated playwright, her conception and directing of the supporting cast are slightly, surprisingly flat; Sophie Okonedo's accent and obvious plain-glass fake eyewear are particular distractions. But Nicholson and Zoe Ziegler, the two luminous leads, more than make up for it.