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The Independent Critic

Julianne Nicholson, Zoe Ziegler, Elias Koteas, Will Patton, Sophie Okonedo
Annie Baker
Rated PG-13
110 Mins.
A24 Films

 Movie Review: Janet Planet 
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It is already an established fact that Annie Baker is a brilliant writer. Winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Drama for her stage play The Flick, Baker makes her feature film directing debut with the A24 release Janet Planet. It's a masterful debut for Baker, infused with everything we've come to know and love about Baker as a playwright yet also fully embracing of the differing possibilities within the cinematic world. 

Janet Planet is set in 1991. We're introduced to Lacy (brilliant newcomer Zoe Ziegler), an 11-year-old at a rural Massachusetts camp who has dialed up her mother, Janet (Julianne Nicholson), boldly pronouncing that she's going to kill herself if her mother doesn't come pick her up from camp. 

We get the immediate feeling this is not the first time such a call has been made. 

Dutifully, even maternally, Janet complies. 

It would be easy to assume from these patiently realized opening scenes that Janet Planet is a coming-of-age film, though the film defies such easy description. Instead, whaat we experience throughout the nearly two-hour film is the subtle, shifting dynamics of human relationships including those between mother and daughter. 

Janet loves Lacy. Lacy loves Janet. 

Yet, relationships change and the older we get the more our humanity becomes less romanticized and more a point of tension. Janet is a single mother, a professional acupuncturist living in the woods of Massachusetts amidst liberals and progressives who often mean well but less often do well. They are not bad people. They are people. The same is true for Janet and I can't help but think we become convinced that the same will be true for Lacy. She seems to be becoming aware of it for herself. 

Relationships are weird. We love one another. We fall in love. We make love. We nurture. We care. Yet, at some point, we all become a little less ideal. I'm a wonderful human being, for example, but I'm also capable of being a self-absorbed asshole. 

Both are true. Life becomes a process of learning how we develop through these ever-changing truths. 

We watch Lacy fall out of love with her mother and figuring out what this means for herself. While many filmmakers would have created faux tensions and amped up histrionics, Baker's always immersed her storytelling in subtlety and nuance and the same is true here. There's no need to further dramatize a story that is inherently dramatic and richly human. 

Janet has a life of her own, kind of sort of, with various loves and lovers coming in and going out of her life. She adores the anxiety ball she calls Lacy, an absolutely endearing young lady who may or may not be figuring out that she needs to discover her own force even as she's also discovering that her dependable mother isn't always so dependable. 

Lacy relates differently to the people who come in and out of her mother's life, and thus hers.

Wayne (Will Patton) feels older and angrier and more unsettled than anyone here, a contrast to Janet yet likely also a stabilizing force. 

Regina (Sophie Okonedo) is unsettled in different ways, a former actor who doesn't want to talk about it and a compassion freak who does better at talking it than walking it. 

Avi (Elias Koteas) is Janet's ex, though he's never really that far away. Leader of a nearby arts commune with cultish tendencies, Avi offers connection in limited ways and in ways that he defines. 

As film journalists, we often find ourselves comparing a film to this film or that film or this genre or that genre. To do so would be wholly unjust for Baker's gifted storytelling and wholly inspired vision. The closest I can come, I suppose, is 2023's Past Lives from Celine Song not because they're thematically similar, they're not, but because both Baker and Song are so trusting of their storytelling and respectful of their characters that both films feel like remarkable, mature storytelling at its absolute finest. The fact that this is Baker's directorial debut? Absolutely stunning. 

The performances here are splendid. 

Zoe Ziegler's Lacy mesmerizing, equal parts vulnerable tween and inquisitive beyond her years young lady. She craves, even demands, near constant companionship from her mother much to the dismay of the demanding in a different way Wayne. Ziegler's intuitive performance is absolutely sublime. 

The same is true for the always dependable Julianne Nicholson. The film takes its name from the name of Janet's acupuncture practice, however, there's never any doubt it means much more. Over the film's nearly two hours, Nicholson slowly peels away that "much more." 

The rest of the ensemble is similarly yet quietly exquisite including the always welcome Elias Koteas, the multi-layered Sophie Okonedo, and the abrupt and somewhat volatile Wayne created by Will Patton. 

Lensing by Maria Von Hausswolff (Godland) is like our own companion to all that unfolds here. We're planted around it and within it. Several scenes left me mesmerized, not because they're brilliantly shot but because they are so patient and so wise and so beautifully rendered. There's simply never a moment when Janet Planet doesn't feel like a real story in a real world with real people. 

Quite simply, I loved every minute of it. 

Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic