Janet Planet

In 1991 rural Western Massachusetts, 11 year-old Lacy (Zoe Ziegler) demands to be picked up from summer camp, then, having no friends, drifts around the edges of her single, acupuncturist mom Janet’s (Julianne Nicholson, "Blonde," "Dream Scenario") world of artisans and artists.  By the end of the season, Lacy has become disillusioned with living on “Janet Planet.”

Laura's Review: B+

Writer/director Annie Baker, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, makes her feature filmmaking debut from the unique perspective of a lonely little girl jostling for her mother’s attention when that mother attracts lovers like bees to honey.  Baker, who is from Western Massachusetts, celebrates the area’s unique combination of farms, small towns and the creative and blue collar communities that coexist in the shadow of Mount Pollux, the ideal playground for a child’s imagination.

Lacy, who seems like a refugee from a Wes Anderson film or a female cross between "Radio Days" era Seth Green and John Lennon, immediately exhibits a flair for drama by threatening to kill herself if her mother doesn’t pick her up from camp.  But as she tells two other girls quite the tale about why she’s leaving, one gifts her a troll ring, an unexpected symbol of friendship that changes her mind.  Too late, mom’s decided that hers is ‘a bad pattern.’

Back in a home designed to allow nature in, Lacy must contend with Wayne (Will Patton, "Minari"), the local Vietnam vet who is Janet’s latest boyfriend.  She asks for ‘a piece’ of her mother to sleep with, Wayne having decreed that the 11 year-old sleeping with her mom was weird, and takes a strand of hair.  Lacy almost changes her mind about Wayne when she meets his daughter Sequoia (Edie Moon Kearns) on a visit to the mall, the two quickly bonding with a not-so-secret language, but Wayne cannot answer her questions about why she does not live with him and he’s soon another of Janet’s castoffs.

Lacy delights in being with mom in the audience of a giant outdoor puppet theater, perhaps more thrilled by leaning against Janet’s shoulder than by the show that continues into dusk, but the outing proves a double-edged sword when it introduces mom’s old friend Regina (Sophie Okonedo, "Hotel Rwanda," "Catherine Called Birdy"), one of the actors, into their lives and their home.  But while Regina has a heart-to-heart with Lacy about Janet’s bad taste in men (in a car parked in front of The History of Women Mural in Northampton), it reveals a rift in the women’s relationship and the next thing Lacy knows, mom’s moved on to the theater’s eccentric, guruish director Avi (Atom Egoyan regular Elias Koteas).

Using a muted, natural color palette, "Godland" cinematographer Maria von Hausswolff showcases Lacy’s solitary pursuits with tracking shots that follow the young girl as she marches to her piano lessons on a sparsely trafficked road, using close-ups, like a geometrically composed shot of Janet and Regina, to define Lacy’s mom while foreshadowing their break-up with their perpendicular placement.

Nicholson’s Janet is practical and self-assured, her Janet stating at one point ‘I know I’m not that beautiful, but I’ve always believed I could make a man fall in love with me if I really tried.  And I think it ruined my life.’  Her Janet cares for her daughter, yet is perpetually distracted by potential lovers.  Young Ziegler is a marvel, always observing everything around her, never more so than in Baker’s knockout of an ending, the young girl watching her mother get passed from one square dancing partner to the next, working her charms on everyone who comes within her sphere as Lacy plays the wallflower.

Robin's Review: B

First-time feature writer-director Annie Baker actually gives us two stories in her mother-daughter debut tome. The obvious one is the character study, by Julianne Nicholson, of a woman who has spent her hippie lifestyle without concern for others, especially Lacy. The other is from Lacy’s point of view as she watches her mother live her life her way, with her rules.

As I watched the tiny family’s story play out, I found I had little patience for Janet and her self-centered life. That her ways extended to her daughter is a given but what is interesting is the way the youngster has learned to cope. Lacy constructed a tiny theater where the players on the stage mirror the characters in her life.

There are stories, from the ‘60s and ‘70s, of young people being radicalized by the times, and. then. how they traded that edge and dedication for a nine-to-fiver and a regular paycheck. Janet lived the life as a radical and hippie and never gave it up, at the expense of those closer to her, especially Lacy.

As Janet and Lacy’s life together plays out, it becomes apparent that the child has had to be the adult in the room. It is a shifting of roles as Janet remains the perennial child of wonder while her youngster child must be the grownup. This makes for a very unusual mother-daughter story.

The New England locale and regional cast give the film a distinct air of that rural location. The story is anchored, in different was, by both of its stars as each gets their own distinct path to follow in a unique mother-daughter drama.

A24 releases "Janet Planet" in select theaters on 6/21/24, expanding on 6/28/24.