The first thing we hear from the 11-year-old Lacy in playwright Annie Baker’s contemplative yet cold-to-the-touch film debut “Janet Planet” is that she will kill herself.
Okay, perhaps some context is necessary, as her threat isn’t nearly as dark as it sounds—in fact, it lands with a chuckle. Played with precocious seriousness by newcomer Zoe Ziegler in an observant performance, the tight-lipped and often unsmiling Lacy happens to be stuck at a cheesy summer camp she can’t stand and is begging her mom on the other end of the phone line to come and pick her up, exaggerating with her sarcastic words just how desperate she is.
Studiously bespectacled, dressed in oversized tees and sporting a nerdy mid-part, Lacy wins her case eventually, proving at once that she is still very much a mommy’s girl despite looking like an independent and amusingly know-it-all heroine—a kid with a bookish sort of familiarity, whose cartoon rendering you might expect to see on the cover of a children’s book series.
Lacy is so attached to her mom, Janet (Julianne Nicholson) that she would happily crawl back into her womb if she could. In lieu of that, she does the next best thing and sleeps with her mom most nights. It’s a routine Janet’s cranky boyfriend Wayne (Will Patton) finds strange and isn’t shy about articulating.
Set in rural Massachusetts in the early 1990s, and pitched at a time of girlhood equally removed from childishness and maturity, the “Janet Planet” traces an ordinary period in Lacy’s life as she gradually becomes the kind of tween who no longer needs to sleep with mom. It’s a low-key coming-of-age movie in that sense, but an untraditional one without explosive mother-daughter arguments, confrontations, a climax or even a clearly defined proposition.
The monotonous story unfolds as three different people over one summer walk in and out of Janet and Lacy’s lives and home, where the former seems to make a decent living by running a low-key acupuncture business. The first one of those people is the aforementioned Wayne, a difficult and unsettling guy who more than once gets inappropriately angry with Lacy, scolding her with entitlement. The second is Sophie Okonedo’s vivacious Regina—the film’s most memorable presence (perhaps because she is the only upbeat character), recovering from a recent break-up with Avi (Elias Koteas). Avi is the final one to round off the trio, an intense leader of a cultish commune Janet and Lacy pay a visit to.
Weaving these earthy and hippy-ish trio together in an often wordless script, Baker’s delicate outing feels more like an inquisitory but unfinished experiment on childhood and remembrance than a fully realized movie. “Janet Planet” occasionally rewards with its tiny, dainty details of the duo’s pastoral and artsy life, especially when Baker focuses on Lacy’s lonesome world and her abundant creativeness to fill time and space in an era before social media and endless options on an iPad.
But the film demands heaps of patience while Baker looks for something concrete to say. We get the sense that Janet isn’t particularly good about choosing boyfriends or friends to introduce into their lives, with each of the three characters overstepping a boundary or two and slowly rocking Lacy’s otherwise stable ship. But despite Janet’s missteps in not being a good judge of character, there isn’t a strong thesis in “Janet Planet” that untangles a tween’s morphing view of her imperfect mother with conviction.
Still, the searching quality and casual aimlessness of “Janet Planet” is oddly transfixing, a Kelly Reichardt-adjacent demeanor that reflects itself onto Nicholson’s performance—she often looks like she’s simply existing instead of acting. In other words, it’s a film one genuinely can’t look away from, enriched by its locational specificities and unconventional framing choices which often positions Lacy at the bottom of the screen (showing her face but somehow blocking the rest of her) and masterful “Godland” cinematographer Maria von Hausswolff’s grainy 16mm compositions, both intimate and respectfully distanced.
So it’s unfortunate that “Janet Planet” feels wearisome on the whole, especially compared to something like the sterling “Aftersun,” which it will inevitably bring to mind. In that, where Charlotte Wells’ film was a purposely quiet, dreamy and ambiguous excavation of a storyteller’s personal memories, “Janet Planet” seems a touch random, as well as hushed and even-keeled to fault. It keeps the viewer at arm’s length from both the joys and aches of tweenhood, when all you crave is to get just a step closer.
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