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Janet Planet Is a Delightful and Unsettling Exploration of a Mother-Daughter Relationship

5 minute read

Playwright Annie Baker’s debut film Janet Planet is either about motherhood or childhood, depending on your mood, the phase of the moon, the way the wind is blowing on any given day. It’s both complex and simple, tranquil and unnerving. Set in 1991, in woody western Massachusetts, it’s the story of how a single mother, the Janet of the title (Julianne Nicholson), and her 11-year-old daughter Lacy (Zoe Ziegler), pass one ramshackle summer. Though there’s tenderness in it, it’s not your classic coming-of-age heart-warmer. This is a child’s-eye view of a parent rendered without a sheen of nostalgia—it feels less like a story being told by a thoughtful adult looking back than one springing directly from the fierce, untamed mind of a child.

Nicholson’s Janet is a low-key charmer, a bit of a hippie—she’s an acupuncturist—who lives with Lacy in a big, airy house in the woods. Janet tends to attract odd or mildly needy types, and over this particular summer, three aimless moths flutter toward her flame: there’s a crabby, migraine-prone boyfriend named Wayne (Will Patton), Regina (Sophie Okonedo), who has escaped from a sort-of cult, and, finally, the leader of that sort-of cult himself, Elias Koteas’ Avi, a guy who explores the intricacies of consciousness by producing outdoor shows involving giant puppets.

Janet acknowledges that she’s given to making bad choices when it comes to friends and lovers. But for Lacy, any interloper is an inconvenience at best and a hostile invader at worst. It’s clear that she would like her mother all to herself. In the movie’s opening scene, we see her running from a little wooden cabin to a payphone located in another cabin, ringing up her mother to demand that she be allowed to come home from camp right away or else, she threatens with a melodramatic flourish, she’ll kill herself. The line’s overstatement is designed to get a laugh. But by the end of the film—marked by the last days of summer and the onset of fall, a time of new beginnings when you’re a school-kid—her desperation seems less funny and more piteous. Is she going to be OK? Maybe—but Baker isn’t out to reassure us.

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Zoe Ziegler and Julianne Nicholson in 'Janet Planet' Courtesy of A24

Lacy has trouble making friends, and she admits as much. She’s your typical weird kid, with all the wonderful and disquieting qualities that implies. She loves to sleep curled into her mom, which, Janet informs her, Wayne thinks is “weird,” though it’s really just an indication of her naked neediness. Alone in her room, she does weird-kid things: She has a windup music box that plays an odd little tune. After setting that going, she opens a jerry-rigged theater curtain to reveal a bookshelf, where a family of lined-up figurines play out their own version of everyday life—she might lay them down and cover them with little cloth blankets, or place small platters or teacups in front of them. This is a kid’s way of controlling the narrative; it’s also a metaphorical setup for a playwright—or filmmaker—in training.

Janet loves her daughter, and though she tries to do everything right, she also wants to have a life, with friends and boyfriends of her own. But she feels constrained by Lacy’s possessiveness, and as Ziegler plays her, you can see why: With her wide-awake eyes, tiny pointed chin, and opaline skin, she looks like a cross between an antique china owl and a Memling madonna, and she seems to see everything. She gazes at her mother with a mix of naked affection and resentment over the possibility that she might be pushed away. She may be fully weaned, but she’s still latched on.

Is Lacy’s fixation on her mother healthy or aberrant, a stage she’ll grow out of or a sign of serious maladjustment? Baker spells none of that out—the point, it seems, is that parent-child bonds are never easy to parse, and that’s the idiosyncratic, vaguely unsettling charm of Janet Planet. Baker’s plays include a quartet of works set in the fictional town of Shirley, Vermont—Circle Mirror Transformation, Body Awareness, The Aliens, and Nocturama—as well as The Flick, which won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for drama. Not all playwrights are cut out to be filmmakers, but that’s not a worry with Baker. In an early scene, as Wayne and Janet drive Lacy home from camp, the camera gives us a closeup view, from the backseat, of Janet's left cheek and ear—her skin is translucent and downy, almost illuminated from within, as if her daughter’s adoration were its own light source. Wayne’s cheek, by contrast, just looks weathered and old, an affront to both youth and to mother-daughter privacy.

That Baker even thinks about delicate details like these tells you she knows how to use the screen to tell a story. And if that story both rattles and delights you, that just means Baker isn’t handing over prepackaged ideas, about childhood or motherhood or anything. At one point, as the two lie in bed, Janet wonders aloud if Lacy might turn out to be gay; Lacy doesn’t even want to think about this yet, but it gets the little gears of her brain whirring even so. Janet Planet may leave you not quite knowing what to think—about Lacy’s future, about how she might view her mother when she reaches her mother’s age, about whether or not she’ll need loads of therapy. But this small, anxious being follows you even after the screen goes dark. She’s not just tugging at Janet. She’s tugging at us.

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