Review: ‘Janet Planet’

Julianne Nicholson And Zoe Ziegler Are Perfect In Annie Baker's In Annie Baker's Sharp, Languid Summer Dramedy

Janet Planet is by no means a horror movie, but it starts off sounding like one. “I’m going to kill myself,” says 11-year-old Lacy, played by the wonderful Zoe Ziegler, over the phone to her mother, Janet, played by the always-terrific Julianne Nicholson. Nobody is going to die. Lacy is just being melodramatic in an effort to have her mom pick her up from summer camp, which she is not enjoying at all.

The mood, as it is for much of the film, is the unhurried dog days of summer. There’s scarcely a moment when the buzzing sounds of nature can’t be heard, or when a ray of sunshine isn’t peeking out. Set in 1991 rural Massachusetts, Janet Planet also captures the mood of a kid’s boredom, impatience, loneliness, and inquisitiveness. Lacy wasn’t just unhappy about being away at camp, she desperately needed to be back in the orbit of her mother, a single woman with her own issues to sort out and not a lot of patience for a clingy child.

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Annie Baker makes her directorial debut with Janet Planet, a film set in a place familiar to her and star Nicholson. She infuses the film with period details that feel deeply personal, plucked straight from memory. Janet exists in a community of like-minded hippies, with all of the flightiness and flakiness that suggests. But she has built a career for herself performing acupuncture while enduring a series of relationships that show her to be impulsive and slightly mercurial. Lacy, who has no friends of her own age, watches Janet with a quizzical eye, soaking it all in. Just weeks away from starting Middle School, Lacy is wise beyond her years and sees everything. She’s also jealous, indecisiveness, and a bit vindictive.

Baker doesn’t lay out Janet Planet with a typical coming-of-age narrative. It unfolds like a series of memories from a judgmental child’s point of view, as Lacy recalls the people who entered into Janet’s orbit that summer. There’s Wayne (Will Patton), Janet’s then-boyfriend who seems like a nice guy and we wonder why the girl dislikes him so much. But he’s also closed-off and defensive, which Lacy picks up on and then barrages him with personal questions, much to his anger.

There’s also Regina (Sophie Okonedo), an old friend of Janet’s who is escaping a past relationship with Avi (Elias Koteas), a mystic with serious control issues. Regina can be petty and jealous, but also carefree and fun in a way that Janet isn’t, and that seems to cause a rift. It isn’t long before Avi has wormed his way into Janet and Lacy’s life, too. All of these people come and go, making an impression on Lacy before vanishing as quickly as they arrive.

Nobody is going anywhere fast in Janet Planet, and that’s exactly how Baker wants it. The film is so vastly different from the typical Hollywood coming-of-age drama. The most exciting things to happen are a trip to the local mall where Lacy briefly makes a new friend, and when Janet plucks a tick out of Lacy’s hair.  While Baker has hit on something honest and true in all of Janet Planet‘s specifics, it isn’t always an exciting viewing experience. There’s not a ton of dialog to speak of, especially in the first half of the film, and when adults do communicate a lot of it is waxing on about life and other unfathomable things they are ill-equipped to express. Perhaps this is just how Lacy perceives these grown-ups; as rambling on about things they cannot understand and never will. With a runtime of around two hours, the film gets bogged down in dull exchanges that leave you wondering what the point was.

Shot in gorgeous, evocative 16mm, Janet Planet is like a beautiful, nostalgic postcard. Nicholson offers a complex portrait of Janet, a mother trying to figure it out for herself and feeling the pressure of figuring it out for her daughter, too. Despite the movie’s title, it’s Lacy who is the character we’ll remember most fondly. In one scene, she watches the old Nickelodeon show Clarissa Explains It All, and as that earworm theme song plays we understand that life isn’t quite so simple. There’s nobody around who can explain it all to you. You’ll just have to figure it out for yourself.

A24 will release Janet Planet into theaters on June 28th.

Janet Planet
Travis Hopson
Travis Hopson has been reviewing movies before he even knew there was such a thing. Having grown up on a combination of bad '80s movies, pro wrestling, comic books, and hip-hop, Travis is uniquely positioned to geek out on just about everything under the sun. A vampire who walks during the day and refuses to sleep, Travis is the co-creator and lead writer for Punch Drunk Critics. He is also a contributor to Good Morning Washington, WBAL Morning News, and WETA Around Town. In the five minutes a day he's not working, Travis is also a voice actor, podcaster, and Twitch gamer. Travis is a voting member of the Critics Choice Association (CCA), Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA), and Late Night programmer for the Lakefront Film Festival.
review-janet-planetJanet Planet is by no means a horror movie, but it starts off sounding like one. "I'm going to kill myself," says 11-year-old Lacy, played by the wonderful Zoe Ziegler, over the phone to her mother, Janet, played by the always-terrific Julianne Nicholson. Nobody...