THE STORY – In rural Western Massachusetts, 11-year-old Lacy spends the summer of 1991 at home, enthralled by her own imagination and the attention of her mother, Janet. As the months pass, three visitors enter their orbit, all captivated by Janet.
THE CAST – Julianne Nicholson, Zoe Ziegler, Elias Koteas, Sophie Okonedo & Will Patton
THE TEAM – Annie Baker (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 110 Minutes
Not all playwrights can transition to writing screenplays. The grander scale that the screen offers calls for different skills than the more intimate nature of the theater. The theater also involves the element of live performance, which works in different rhythms than film. Annie Baker, whose Pulitzer Prize-winning play “The Flick” followed three movie theater employees through their mundane workdays, has shown a knack for naturalistic dialogue that would seem to translate well to the screen. While the dialogue in her debut feature “Janet Planet” retains that sensibility, she has perhaps erred too much on the side of subtlety when it comes to the story, crafting a film full of intriguing ideas that never quite come together to elucidate the bigger picture.
The story takes place in the waning days of summer in 1991, as young Lacy (Zoe Ziegler) demands to be picked up early from sleepaway camp and proceeds to observe her mother, Janet (Julianne Nicholson), as she falls in and out of relationships with three very different people: the divorced and migraine-plagued Wayne (Will Patton), a free-spirited old friend (Sophie Okonedo), and a new-age potential cult leader (Elias Koteas). Lacy and Janet are deeply connected, but Lacy is on the cusp of middle school: that special time when we start going through puberty and realizing that the world is far more complicated than we realized. During this summer, she will learn more about her mother and perhaps even more about herself than she ever could have imagined.
As Lacy, Ziegler is an incredible find. Her bird-like features draw you in immediately, and her eyes reveal a depth that is beyond her years. It’s largely an observational performance built around how she reacts to the adults around her, and she is able to convey more in silence than many actors with decades of experience. She nails the comedy of her line readings, as well. Her dry, deadpan, and comic timing are a perfect match for the rhythms of Baker’s screenplay. Baker smartly keeps her in the distance or on the bottom of the frame, often partially cut off to keep the adults fully in the frame, emphasizing how small she is compared to the larger world around her. It’s a striking visual throughline that heightens everything already great in Ziegler’s performance.
The young performer is surrounded by adult actors who each bring a unique energy to their scenes. As the taciturn Wayne, Patton conveys a lifetime of hurt underneath his grumpy exterior. Okonedo brings depth to her flighty lost soul, allowing her carefree spirit to curdle into carelessness at key moments. The earthy gravitas of Koteas’s performance manages to come across as both genuine and calculated, all the better to keep his character a bit of a mystery.
At the center of it all, Nicholson delivers exactly what we’ve come to expect from her. The actress’s low-key but engaging personality is a perfect fit for the character of Janet, who admits to her daughter that while she knows she’s not the most beautiful woman, she has always known deep inside that she can make any man fall in love with her. Nicholson’s ability to be fully present in the moment, intently listening to her scene partners and adjusting herself accordingly, is on glorious display here, as she shows how Janet is struggling to balance being a good mother with creating a life of her own. Janet may not always make the best decisions, but in Nicholson’s careful hands, we understand why she makes every single one of them.
Unfortunately, not all of Baker’s decisions are as understandable as Janet’s. It seems as though Lacy has an active imagination, with a little stage set up in her room for her collection of figurines and dolls to have tea parties in hats that she makes for them out of the chocolate wrappers she gets at the end of her piano lessons. She always plays with them silently, though, locking us out of whatever fantasy world she might be staging. Although Ziegler does wonders translating Lacy’s inner thoughts facially without the use of dialogue, so much of her character arc happens silently that it’s hard to tell where her story is going, and the larger plot suffers from the same deficiency.
While it makes sense to keep the story as locked to Lacy’s point of view as possible, it leads to the film feeling somewhat shapeless. To be fair, this is likely how Lacy’s summer and first days of middle school feel to her, but the film’s atmosphere doesn’t get that across well enough, and it leaves the film without a strong enough spine for it to stand on its own. While Baker’s visual command is very assured for a first-time filmmaker, and her dialogue retains the minimalistic, slice-of-life beauty that made her plays stand out, the larger picture seems to have gotten away from her a bit. On a scene-by-scene basis, “Janet Planet” is engrossing and even enjoyable, but taken as a whole, it doesn’t fully work.