Annie Baker’s directorial debut, Janet Planet, is a lovely and delicate portrait of the co-dependency between a mother and a daughter.
Celine Song isn’t the only critically acclaimed playwright to not only venture off into filmmaking but also deliver a complex and gripping debut this year. Annie Baker, known for plays like ‘The Flick’, ‘John’, and ‘Body Awareness’, is next in line to impress us all. After the release of Past Lives, a film that has made me cry all three times I have seen it, A24 is ready to give Annie Baker her time in the cinematic spotlight with Janet Planet. And just like with Song, you don’t feel Baker is a novice in the medium, translating the personal observations and emotional weight from her scriptures to the big screen. Subtlety and silence are the key ingredients that fuel her directorial vision, reminiscent of a Kelly Reichardt film.
Annie Baker’s debut is as contemplative and honest as Lady Bird and Eight Grade (coincidentally both A24-backed featured), although with a more mature and textured narrative layout. One of the themes that Baker explores is how our environment and the people that inhabit it shape us. Our lives, personalities, and ways of expression align with our childhood and the lessons we learn along the way. In Janet Planet, we see these moments through the eyes of an awkward 11-year-old girl named Lacy (played by first-time actor Zoe Ziegler) during one summer she will never forget. Nothing grand in terms of actual events that might transpire during those sunny days. But what occurs during those days will help Lacy grow emotionally and psychologically – leaving a memory she will use as guidance later on in her life.
The setting already hints at the impact the events happening in the film will have. Often in cinema, summer is treated as a time for self-reflection or to learn about life’s coldness and tenderness, like in Eric Rohmer’s The Green Ray or A Summer’s Tale. The film is set in Western Massachusetts during the summer of 1991, when Lacy asks her single mother, Janet (Julianne Nicholson), to pick her up from camp. Lacy says she’ll kill herself if she spends one more minute in there. It is pretty erratic behavior. But Janet is used to her daughter’s needy and anxious personality. Although the line is quite strong, we all have had that situation where we’d ask our mother to pick us up from an uncomfortable situation.
Lacy has been having plenty of trouble separating herself from her mother. It has reached a point where she shares a bed with her mother. Now that she’s entering middle school, Lacy needs to learn ways to go through the days without her, especially since she’s entering a more harsh and independent scenario. Janet wants her daughter to grow out of the clinginess – the constant necessity of always being with and needing her. However, as the film continues swiftly in a muted fashion, we notice a pattern that’s reliant on codependency. While Janet talks to Lacy like an adult, she needs her more than her actions and expressions depict. She’s the only person left that cares for her on a more profound level.
Sure, Janet has other people who come and go into her life. But none of them stay long enough, or at least Janet doesn’t want them in it for an extended period. The film is divided into three chapters, all of which center on a different important figure in Janet’s life. These people will not only reveal the different shades of life’s trials and tribulations to Lacy but also the faults Janet has as a caretaker. We see the portrait of two souls coming closer to one another and later breaking apart, telling Lacy’s story of innocence and realization while demonstrating Janet’s struggles with human connection. The first chapter is dedicated to Janet’s current boyfriend, Wayne (Will Patton). He’s a Vietnam veteran who’s troubled by his past. Lacy asks him plenty of questions about life and what happened to him, but he quietly ignores them.
Wayne doesn’t last long in Janet’s life. But the person to whom the second chapter is dedicated to does stay for a bit longer. That person is an old friend of hers, Regina (Sophie Okonedo), who is slowly picking up her life after a significant economic fallout. After spending many years in a local theater group that she calls “cult-like”, Regina is rescued by Janet, who lends her a room. While Regina is more outgoing and expressive than Wayne, even offering Lacy some fun times and adventures, she still has some melancholy lingering around her head like a cloud. Things aren’t going as planned for her, working in an ice cream stand to make ends meet. But, after her offer to stay in her home, Janet is displeased in her presence, which causes the struggling Regina to feel even more isolated than ever.
The third and last chapter revolves around another one of Janet’s lovers, Avi (Elias Kosteas), the leader of the theater group and Regina’s ex. The importance behind this chapter doesn’t revolve around the reasons why Janet is dating Avi, although it adds other layers to the film’s thesis. The crux of Lacy and Janet’s bond is revealed via a critical dialogue scene that pierces your soul. In the other acts, Lacy was reassessing her relationship with her mother and the person that she is. But in that conversation, in which she remains completely silent, that makes her reflect thoroughly on her caretaker. Janet confesses about her constant ups and downs with her partners. She states that the sway of emotions has ruined her life.
These chapters help the film feel tied to one of last year’s most surprising gems. Janet Planet shares one part of Aftersun’s thematic heart: the image of perfect parents beginning to fade away. Through Janet and the people in her life’s experiences during that summer, Lacy gets a glimpse of indescribable emotions, ones that she doesn’t know how to comprehend at this point in her life. Her mother hides away plenty of emotions so that she doesn’t show her true self to Lacy. But, throughout inevitable situations with these side characters, she sees the true side of the person Lacy cares for the most. In Aftersun, Wells’ Sophie (Frankie Corio) goes through a similar situation, yet with some changes – a father instead of a mother, and no presence of strangers in their lives (except for a boy she meets at the hotel).
There’s no need for teenage rebellion or fits of anger. Instead, like Charlotte Wells before her, it all develops via unhurried realization lifted by Baker’s delicate and humanistic lens. Both focused on facial expressions and the palpable (as well as relatable) factor of fractured human relationships, Aftersun and Janet Planet rely on that aspect of feeling like a fleeting memory. While it is more evident in the former, as you see an adult version of Sophie during the film’s climax, the latter also feels that it borrows from past experiences. There’s no note that Baker is taking inspiration from actual events she endured. But the emotions are so grounded that it feels as such. One of the most exciting cinematographers working today, Maria von Hausswolff (known for her work with Icelandic filmmaker Hlynur Pálmason) beautifully captures that sensation. Her dreamy and passive visual language perfectly aligns with the film’s structure.
While minimalistic, occasionally to a minor fault, the scenes Baker conjures never feel artificial or sugar-coated. She creates scenes and conversations that transport the viewer into their childhoods. Baker causes you to return to similar moments, where the world is slowly unraveling, and you have thousands of questions. And what’s brilliant about Janet Planet is how it isn’t all about that wounding nostalgia. Those moments also make you reflect on what’s currently happening. Once you think back at those summer days, in a way, there’s always a hint of self-reflection of your current life. Like a snapshot of a time of innocence, Janet Planet makes you ponder those complex scenarios you couldn’t understand when you were a kid, whether they were fights your parents had or the inner struggles of strangers.
Janet Planet is currently being screened at the 2023 New York Film Festival.