A mother and daughter’s symbiotic bond fuels the artistic crucible that underlies Janet Planet. Such a description, let alone the title, might indicate a film that’s merely riding the coattails of Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird. Fortunately, Annie Baker’s first foray into feature filmmaking is anything but derivative. The facility for naturalistic dialogue seen in her plays has found a suitable medium in cinema for accentuating the actions of ordinary people who either don’t entirely grasp the words needed to articulate their feelings, or don’t know those words well enough to remain silent.
11-year-old Lacy (Zoe Ziegler) belongs to the former camp, with the added caveat that she often says the wrong thing at the wrong time. Her demands in the film’s opening moments to be taken home from summer camp, lest she commits suicide, are fulfilled, but she regrets her actions upon realizing that some of her fellow campers will miss her. “I thought nobody liked me, but I was wrong,” Lacy tells her mother Janet (Julianne Nicholson) in a desperate gambit to reverse course. Janet doesn’t take the bait, and the pair return to their rural Massachusetts home, and to mom’s boyfriend Wayne (Will Patton), to spend the rest of the summer of 1991 together.
Enumerating the events in the plot would do a disservice to the way Baker and her actors economically reveal information about their characters. We learn that Janet runs an acupuncture clinic in her home, which gives the film its name, yet the only client we see is Wayne when he’s seized by a crippling migraine. We gradually glean from Janet’s nurturing tendency a pattern of caring for damaged men, rooted in a difficult relationship with her Holocaust survivor father. But Baker doesn’t reduce Lacy and Janet’s codependency to this spate of exposition, allowing Ziegler and Nicholson’s chemistry to accord their relationship a sense of close, if not always healthy, intimacy.
Baker introduces several characters whose presence quietly provokes Lacy and Janet’s dynamic, including an old friend, Regina (Sophie Okonedo), and a spiritual guru, Avi (Elias Koteas). These peripheral figures in Lacy’s life provide an impact which she does not fully grasp in the present. With its protracted, static shots, the analogue cinematography by Maria von Hausswolf emphasizes moments of contemplation for children and adults alike with tactile immediacy. The significance of these reflections, primarily held by women, lies in their potential for personal revelation.
These moments are also rife with potential rupture, and Baker’s conversations possess these multiple possibilities. A nighttime parlay with Regina swiftly turns sour when she tells Janet that she makes bad decisions. The latter, who believes some people are incapable of telling the difference between good or bad choices, turns coldly furious, and her hostility is subsumed by Lacy. This duality is literalized, perhaps a little too neatly, in the Red Riding Hood doll owned by Lacy’s piano teacher, which can morph into the grandmother and Big Bad Wolf.
By and large, Baker avoids rendering objects with pat allegorical import. For example, the small figurines and detritus that dot the tiny stage in Lacy’s room are mementoes in the constructed play of her memory. Indeed, the image of a child overlooking “the little world” of the stage is redolent of nothing less than Ingmar Bergman’s Fanny and Alexander. Baker earns the comparison without resorting to facile pastiche, as the film’s climactic moment also incorporates an enigmatic disappearance that teases the outer limits of magical realism without breaking its own inimitably cast spell.
As Avi tries wooing Janet by reciting Rilke’s Elegies, the passage he quotes gestures toward a transcendental love children have that requires their parents to ebb “into cosmic space.” By letting go of a parental bond, children are given the chance to make their mark on the world, even if that mark is ultimately ephemeral. But what elevates Janet Planet to a superlative bildungsroman is Baker’s wise understanding of how the constituent pieces of those marks are culled from those we’ve loved and hurt. “Can I have a piece of you?” Lacy asks her mother. Growing up means watching the piece of our parents we receive transfigured into new material, and with all the self-love we can muster identifying that piece as a part of ourselves. Sharing that with others, in all of its ambivalence, is central to Baker’s artistic ethos.
Published as part of NYFF 2023 — Dispatch 2.