JANET PLANET – Review – We Are Movie Geeks



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Julianne Nicholson and Zoe Ziegler, in JANET PLANET. Courtesy of A24

In JANET PLANET, Julianne Nicholson plays Janet, the warming, single mother “sun” around which her daughter, 11-year-old Lacy (Zoe Ziegler) orbits like a planet. Adults are also drawn in by Janet, and circle around her, hoping to become permanent additions to her solar system. This well-acted, sly but slowly-paced dramedy benefits from a talented cast, and both strongly evokes the feeling of summer and a particular point in childhood when the parent is still the center of all but with change looming on the horizon.

Set in 1991 in western Massachusetts, there is much to admire in JANET PLANET, including its fine cast and excellent performances from Julianne Nicholson and Zoe Ziegler. There is beautiful photography, shot on 16mm film, showcasing green forest lanes and rolling hills, and naturalistic sound design captures to sounds of nighttime crickets, both of which effectively evoke the feel of summer and a sense of place in rural western Massachusetts, where the writer/director, playwright Annie Baker, grew up. The story is set in 1991, at a pivotal moment in the life of a child, when that child starts to see the parent who has been the center of their world in a new light that reveals their human flaws. There are plenty of parallels with the writer/director’s life and one can only guess how much of this is autobiographical.

All that is wonderful but what undermines this indie film is its languid pace, filled with long pauses and lingering over small moments. This is playwright Annie Baker’s first film. On stage, she is noted for her long pauses and silences in her plays, but what works well on stage, with live actors and a live audience, does not always work as well on film.

The acting is truly excellent with young Zoe Ziegler fascinating on screen. Julianne Nicholson is also splendid, playing her role with quiet restraint but exuding a hypnotic appeal with her freckled, fresh-faced beauty. JANET PLANET takes us through this long, dreamy summer as Lacy basks in her mother’s sunshine while a series of adults are also drawn into her obit. The film introduces each of these satellites with title cards and marks the exit of each with text like “exit Wayne.” Wayne is the first of these, an unlikely lover, played well by Will Patton, a dumpy depressive who is prone to frequent migraines and a tendency for stripping off his clothes no matter who is around. Wayne has a daughter who does not live with him, and one day, he, Janet and Lacy spend a day with her, including a trip to a mall, with all its 1990s pre-teen magic. Lacy quickly bonds with the sunny girl, who is just her age, but Wayne’s exit puts an end to that.

Next up is Regina, a woman that Janet had known years before and meets again at an outdoor theatrical performance at a hippie commune, which Janet is careful not to call a cult although it seems to be. The delightful Sophie Okonedo plays Regina, and at first when she flees the commune and her controlling lover, she seems a welcome addition to Janet and Lacy’s world. Until she wears out her welcome. Next is a briefer interlude with Regina’s ex, Avi (Elias Koteas) the leader of the cult-like commune, whose charisma draws Janet to him – until she quickly loses interest.

The whole time we see a mother and daughter who are uncommonly close. Lacy is an odd and dramatic child, whose call home from the camp comes with a threat to kill herself, which her mother reactes to as if she’s heard this before. Lacy is happy hanging arond with her mother and playing with her little model theater complete with home-made clay figurines. Her mother Janet is tolerate and loving but also has a tendency to overshare with her daughter, things that are beyond her at this age. In a final scene, where Janet has brought along Lacy to a community contra dance, we start to see the cracks between them and Lacy pondering joining the adult world.

There is much to admire and plenty of depth in this thoughtful and thought-provoking dramedy, but it is for a patient audience who can relax and drift along with its lazy float down the stream of life.

JANET PLANET opens Friday, June 28, in theaters.

RATING: 3 out of 4 stars