In Janet Planet, a brilliant playwright makes a promising film debut

Annie Baker was one of the great American theater artists of her generation. Her plays—like plays for adult theater classes Transform round mirrorA strange and regretful ghost story JohnPulitzer Prize-winning look at the staff of a small-town movie theater movie—challenges traditional notions of conspiracy while delving deeply into ordinary humanity. Her work is both rustic and breathtakingly poetic; Watching an Annie Baker show often feels like watching a magic trick.

So there was a lot of anticipation when Baker’s first film, Planet Janet, has been announced, as well as some concerns. Can her signature style meet the demands of a film—both technically and structurally? What will the film give her that the cinema cannot? Everything is lost and gained in Planet Janet (opens in select theaters June 21), a self-indulgent little film about a mother and daughter wandering through the summer.

Julianne Nicholson plays the title character, an acupuncturist and single mother raising an 11-year-old daughter in Western Massachusetts in 1991. But that daughter, Lacy (Zoe Ziegler), is actually the main role of the film. We mainly learn about the world of this small family through her eyes: its joys and pains, its habits and specifics.

At the beginning of the film, Lacy calls late at night from summer camp, saying she thinks she might kill herself if her mother doesn’t come to take her home. It’s a rather dramatic and darkly funny beginning, hinting at more to come. But Baker keeps much of the rest of the film quiet and restrained. Planet Janet opens in a dreamy whisper, using soft brushstrokes to paint a picture of a liminal time in childhood — a period in which a parent’s sense of individual personality is formed.

Baker divides the film into chapters, telling micro-stories about different people who drift in and out of Janet and Lacy’s orbit. Has a boyfriend, Wayne (Will Patton), who suffers from migraines and doesn’t seem to care much about Lacy. A friend and local theater artist, Regina (Sophie Okonedo, warmer and more attractive than ever), goodbye girls. And then there’s Avi (Elias Koteas), another hippie actor who caught Janet’s attention.

There doesn’t seem to be much going on in these vignettes. But of course, there’s actually one pretty big thing: Lacy is watching. She is learning more about her mother’s desires and frustrations, her mistakes or misjudgments, her needs as they exist separately from her daughter’s. Baker grew up in Western Massachusetts and was born around the time Lacy was born, and was perhaps reflecting on her own perceptions at that age: how much she did and didn’t understand about the adults in her life. my life. As she learns things about her mother, through interactions and observations simulated by suspended close-ups in the film, Lacy is also learning about herself, about how people escape and come together in throughout their lives.

As the film’s title might suggest, all of these musings have great universality; We can probably all recall moments from our childhood when we felt we had a new understanding of our family or community, even our world. Baker conveys these revolutions with a very light touch, sometimes perhaps too light. People crave more from these charming idiosyncrasies, to hear them express themselves fully. At times, the film feels like a timid first effort, unwilling to disrupt its delicate structure with anything as intrusive and conclusive as plot or exposition.

In many other ways, however, Baker proved himself to his fellow birther. The natural world is clearly evoked in Planet Janet, all the noise and lights that are special to Massachusetts in the summer. (As a native of that state, I felt completely transported back to the place and time.) Baker handles his actors wonderfully, giving them space to inhabit the film’s spaces as if they had always been there — she did an exceptionally good job in this role. cast Ziegler and created a believable reality through which the young first-time actor could naturally navigate.

And Baker crafts a deeply affecting closing scene, an image of a child on the brink of something, entering adolescence and all the developments that come with the relationship. her with her mother. True to Baker’s plays, Planet Janet envelops the audience in a lulling mood before delivering a meaningful conclusion, a kind of summary of theme and intention that helps clarify all you’ve just seen. Oh, that’s what this silent thing has been showing us for so long – like Lacy, we finally understand.

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