Movie Review: Janet Planet – Playwright Annie Baker’s Film Debut About a Pre-teen and Her Mother

Annie Baker, who won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for her play The Flick, makes her directorial debut from the screenplay she wrote for Janet Planet. At the Berlin International Film Festival, her feature film was a nominee for the Panorama Audience Award. The film is set in rural Western Massachusetts during the summer of 1991.

Janet (Julianne Nicholson, Dream Scenario with Nicolas Cage) is an acupuncturist and a single mother to 11-year-old Lacy (Zoe Ziegler). Her practice is in her massive cabin–looking home set among large trees. Lacy is very used to being alongside her mother. When the film begins, she is away at camp and is seen leaving camp in the dark. She arrives at a payphone and promptly states dramatically, “I’m going to kill myself if you don’t come get me.” At this point, the audience does not know what happened to the soon-to-be 6th grader. We also see her lying to her friends at camp about why she is leaving. To her surprise, her fellow campers show their care and concern, something she has not experienced during her school days. Why the drama? She wants to be home with her mother.

Janet has a boyfriend, Wayne (Will Patton), and Lacy doesn’t like sharing her mama with him. She feels the loss of sleeping alongside her mama at will. Lacy negotiates with Janet to take something of hers back to her room and quit trying to bunk with them. Of course, Wayne is not too happy. By this time, anyone who is a parent and may have gone through something similar will relate.

As the summer passes, Wayne is not the only one Lacy views as taking away her mom’s time and attention. Janet is at an art event and runs into a friend, Regina (Sophie Okonedo), who she has not seen in a long time. When Regina agrees to an invitation to stay at Janet’s home, Lacy finds ways to make it so that it is not an extended visit. During the event where Janet connected with Regina, she also met Avi (Elias Koteas), the community leader where Regina had been staying. That gentleman’s visits seemed awkward, so I agree with Lacy for trying to keep that stranger away.

I have purposely not given many details about what Lacy does or how she reacts to what may appear to be a revolving door of people that summer. This child actress plays a quirky pre-teen very well and gives adults a peek into what may be going through her mind at this stage. When the film is about to wind down, the audience sees a community event with live music. Janet is in attendance with Lacy alongside her. Janet is having a grand time dancing and socializing with other adults. The look on Lacy’s face as she watches is quite the opposite. This moment spoke volumes to me. What else is Lacy prepared to do, and how will Janet respond?

By the film’s end, I was baffled about this mother-child relationship and didn’t entirely agree with what I had just viewed. In taking a step back, it is a fascinating script. The actors portray the characters in this family very well, with their respective wants and needs—especially a pre-teen trying to make her way in the rapidly changing world surrounding her. This film will elicit different reactions and understanding from the viewers.

The performances are great. The cast includes Luke Bosco, June Walker Grossman, Abby Harri, Edie Moon Kearns, and Mary Shultz.

Crew: Director, writer: Annie Baker. Camera: Maria von Hausswolf.

Editor: Lucian Johnson. Music supervisor: Joe Rudge. Run time: 113 minutes

The film premiered at the Telluride Film Festival (2023) and opens in theaters June 28, 2024.

Source: A24

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