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‘Janet Planet’ Review: Julianne Nicholson and Zoe Ziegler Redefine the Mother-Daughter Portrait in Annie Baker’s Exquisite Debut


Annie Baker’s remarkable plays are deceptively sparse works in which very little happens in terms of the essence of conventional drama. Instead, with a keen ear for the subtle moments of quiet illumination and unexpected depths in everyday conversation, an equally attentive sense of the silences these words punctuate, and a source of compassion for those dealing with the uncertainties and disappointments of life on the edge of the world. modern society, she draws you into the worlds of her characters. Baker’s Chekhovian capacity for intimate observation has few equals among contemporary playwrights.

It comes as no surprise that her feature film debut as a writer-director, Janet Planet, is a strange marvel of comparable beauty, its apparent simplicity carrying an emotional weight that creeps up on you all the time. Just like another veteran playwright who made a graceful transition to films this year, Celine Song Past lives, Baker shows no signs of being a neophyte in the medium. However, her approach feels closer in tone, humor and sharp poignancy to another beautifully acted recent work by a female filmmaker, Kelly Reichardt’s To show up.

Janet Planet

It comes down to

A little gem.

Anyone who saw Baker’s Pulitzer winning The Flick – a micro-macro study of cinema colleagues who share a usually unspoken desperation, searching for connection and self-understanding – will know that she is highly literate in the language of film.

The crisp naturalism of her writing translates seamlessly to the screen, enhancing her skill at picking up on every nuance of her characters’ behavior. Given that Baker’s plays create the illusion of an immersive theatrical close-up, it stands to reason that a camera lens will magnify that process even further. She finds an ideal collaboration partner in the Swedish cameraman Maria von Hausswolff (her images were a key component in the brooding splendor of Godland), shooting in what appears to be mostly available light and making effective use of static frames.

The title has nothing to do with the eponymous songwriter and former Van Morrison muse. It instead refers to Janet (Julianne Nicholson), a single mom and acupuncturist living in wooded western Massachusetts with her 11-year-old daughter Lacy (real discovery Zoe Ziegler). As the title suggests, Janet is the center of Lacy’s world, and in her frankly self-dramatizing way, the smart, spiky kid finds an excuse to go to camp so she can eagerly absorb her mother’s attention during the 1991 summer vacation before she starts sixth grade.

Baker shows us who Lacy is in a scene where the spindly, bespectacled, friendless maverick her own age seems surprised by the warm farewell of her two cabinmates, one of whom gives her a troll doll as a memento. When Janet comes to pick her up, Lacy is disappointed to see her mother’s boyfriend Wayne (Will Patton) waiting by the car and immediately tries to reverse her decision to leave. “I thought no one liked me, but I was wrong,” she says. Too bad, Janet has already negotiated a partial refund.

The film is divided into four chapters, three of which are built around the entry and exit of different adults’ lives during the summer. The gruff, migraine-prone Wayne is first, and his main redeeming feature is a daughter about Lacy’s age from a broken marriage, Sequoia (Edie Moon Kearns). The day they spend together at a city mall is a dizzying foray into a more conventional childhood, with its fast-paced friendships, shared secrets and impromptu adventures. But it leaves Lacy with questions that the taciturn Wayne doesn’t want to answer.

Away from her mother’s sphere of influence, Lacy lives in a fantasy world that is very much her own private haven, suspended on the edge of childhood yet somehow alluding to a more refined imagination.

Baker has said in interviews that this is her favorite movie of all time Fanny and Alexanderthose, like Janet Planet, is told from a preteen perspective. There could be a playful homage to Lacy’s dollhouse, which resembles an artful homemade version of the children’s puppet theater seen in the opening of Ingmar Bergman’s semi-autobiographical classic.

Built in a box, hidden behind a show curtain, it features weird kiln-baked clay and plastic figures (including the troll) that Lacy feeds, puts to bed at night, and – after a hippie-dippy performance farm theater collective – adorned with regal headdresses made from the wrappers of the Lindt chocolates her patient piano teacher (Mary Shultz) gives her at the end of each lesson.

That outdoor theatrical experience—called a “service,” not a performance by the group’s leader, Avi (Elias Koteas)—is a countercultural legacy with elements of music, dance, fantastic animal costumes and folkloric mystique. It reconnects Janet to the subject of the second chapter, her warm but slightly maddening old friend Regina (Sophie Okonedo, excellent), who insists the collective is not a cult, but is nevertheless eager to flee from the dominating influence of Avi, with whom she’s been together. in a relationship.

Regina moves in with them for a while, and Lacy is drawn to the visitor’s intense energy. But when the two women get stoned and get involved in a rambunctious conversation about motherhood and life decisions, Janet becomes irritable with Regina for judging her. Soon after, Avi drops by, ostensibly to convince Regina to return to the farm, though he shows more interest in Janet, leading to the third chapter.

Lacy studies her mother’s interactions with these people with a mix of childlike curiosity and scientific detachment befitting an anthropologist. Sometimes she appropriates adult concepts, such as the Buddhist meditations and bows Janet learns from Avi, and tries on for custom. But she always seems to think about roles and relationships in ways beyond her years.

Some of Lacy’s conversations with her mother are understatedly hilarious, especially since Janet – earthy but quietly melancholy and occasionally lost in her own head in Nicholson’s poignant performance – responds to even the most melodramatic statements with frankness and earnestness.

“You know what’s funny?” says Lacy bluntly at one point. “Every moment of my life is hell.” Instead of offering platitudinous reassurances that things will get better, Janet emerges from a momentary absence to reply, “I’m actually pretty unhappy, too.” In another revealing conversation, Lacy asks, in what seems more like a hypothetical question than something fueled by primitive desire, “Would you be disappointed if I dated a girl one day?” Telling her that would be fine, Janet notes that she respects her daughter’s candor, but has often wondered how that would work with a man.

Baker has described the film as a story “about losing love for your mother,” which Ziegler delivers with a subtlety and emotional acuity that is astonishing in such a young and inexperienced actor.

Janet tells Lacy that she always knew she could make any man fall in love with her if she really tried, adding, “And I think it ruined my life.” As Lacy processes that confession and continues to silently reassess the woman who has captivated her throughout her childhood, the film takes on swirling undercurrents that are as dramatically satisfying as the clashes between rebellion and authority or the hormonal storms of puberty that accentuate the usual images. of this transition period in a girl’s life. In the end, Lacy seems to be heading for a kind of liberation that has remained elusive to her mother, no matter how solemnly Janet sings about it.

The film contains no non-diegetic music and even limits major camera movements to a relatively small handful of scenes. Nothing distracts from the tender wisdom of his unquestionably unsentimental gaze and the vibrancy of his very specific New England milieu. Janet Planet never goes anywhere obvious. It ends with a counter-dance in the community, with Lacy steadfastly refusing to participate, though she may wonder if she might want to do so in the future. The flickering play of a full spectrum of feelings on Ziegler’s face in the final shot is a thing of wonder.

Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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