Janet Planet Review

Janet Planet: An Unforgettable Directorial Debut

Few directorial debuts have arrived as fully-formed as Annie Baker’s Janet Planet. Set in rural Massachusetts in the early ’90s, the gentle coming-of-age drama traces the relationship between an awkward 11-year-old who can’t seem to find her place in the world, and her wayward hippie mom, a free-spirited woman with a similar conundrum. A distinct sense of time, place, and mood permeates every scene, filling the frame with bittersweet nostalgia as its drama slowly unravels, revealing moments that veer between sharply funny and deeply heartrending.

The Story of Janet Planet

In the dead of night, the young, withdrawn Lacy (Zoe Ziegler) concocts a plan to leave her summer camp, where she feels alone. This introduction is both emotionally charged and wryly funny: over a curt phone call to her mother Janet (Julianne Nicholson), Lacy threatens to kill herself if she isn’t picked up the following day. Janet obliges, but brings her distant, short-tempered older boyfriend, Wayne (Will Patton), of whom Lacy is none too fond. This kicks off the first of several chapters within Janet Planet – this one simply titled “Wayne” – during which its plotless meandering is deeply purposeful.

Janet Planet Gallery

Janet Planet is pulsing with dry, acerbic wit, but there’s a purity to it. A goodness, even it at its most macabre, like when Lacy builds a morbid shrine of glass figurines to play with, or winds up a toy that chimes Mozart’s Lacrimosa, which she doesn’t seem to realize is a funeral march. She’s imaginative, but doesn’t yet grasp the full extent of her imagination; the film’s humor is occasionally ironic, but never insincere.

The Characters of Janet Planet

Janet feels just as adrift as her daughter, but in quieter and more concerning ways. Janet Planet is structured around the arrival and departure of major characters in her life, starting with Wayne and culminating with another man she falls for, but this creates a listless sense of impermanence, and she can’t help but blame herself for it too.

But the secret weapon is newcomer Ziegler, who crafts a singular performance through her curious and observant gaze. Lacy tries to understand the adult world around her, and she often does, but knows better than to get involved.

Baker’s Unique Directorial Vision

Baker, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, has long woven eccentric character dynamics into tales of loneliness and yearning. These themes simmer just beneath the surface in her most recent play, Infinite Life, which opened off Broadway last year, around the same time as Janet Planet premiered at Telluride.

With Janet Planet, Baker also takes complete advantage of the new cinematic tools at her disposal to create a vibrant sense of time and place. The film has a photographic quality, between its 16mm film grain and slightly blown-out highlights that create a sun-lit radiance.

A Cinematic Masterpiece

You can pinpoint the geography, time of day, and even the season and temperature of a given scene thanks to Maria von Hausswolf ‘s precise cinematography and Paul Hsu’s meticulous sound design. There’s hardly a moment in Janet Planet that doesn’t evoke specific memories, which Baker imbues with equally specific moods through her off-kilter framing.