Annie Baker’s remarkable plays are deceptively spare works in which very little happens in terms of the nuts and bolts of conventional drama. Instead, with a keen ear for the subtle moments of quiet illumination and unexpected depths in everyday conversation, an equally attentive feel for the silences that punctuate those words and a well of compassion for people dealing with the uncertainties and disappointments of life on the fringes of modern society, she pulls you into her characters’ worlds. Baker’s Chekhovian powers of intimate observation have few equals among contemporary dramatists.
It’s no surprise that her debut feature as writer-director, Janet Planet, is an oddball marvel of comparable beauty, its apparent simplicity yielding an emotional weight that creeps up on you throughout. Like another accomplished playwright who made a graceful transition into films this year, Celine Song with Past Lives, Baker shows no signs of being a neophyte in the medium. Her approach feels closer, however, in tone, humor and sharp-edged poignancy to another beautifully acted recent work from a woman filmmaker, Kelly Reichardt’s Showing Up.
The Bottom Line A small jewel.
Anyone who saw Baker’s Pulitzer-winning The Flick — a micro-macro study of movie theater co-workers who share a generally unspoken desperation, fumbling toward connection and self-understanding — will know she is highly literate in the language of film.
The limpid naturalism of her writing translates seamlessly to the screen, intensifying her skill at picking up every nuance of her characters’ behavior. Given that Baker’s plays give the illusion of an immersive theatrical closeup, it stands to reason that a camera lens will magnify that process even further. She finds an ideal collaborator in Swedish cinematographer Maria von Hausswolff (her visuals were a key component in the brooding magnificence of Godland), shooting in what appears mostly to be available light and making effective use of static frames.
The title is unrelated to the songwriter and one-time Van Morrison muse of the same name. It refers instead to Janet (Julianne Nicholson), a single mother and acupuncturist living in woodsy Western Massachusetts with her 11-year-old daughter Lacy (genuine discovery Zoe Ziegler). As the title suggests, Janet is the nexus of Lacy’s world, and in her bluntly self-dramatizing way, the smart, spiky kid finds an excuse to bail on camp so she can greedily soak up her mother’s attention during the 1991 summer break before she starts the sixth grade.
Baker shows us who Lacy is in a scene where the spindly, bespectacled misfit with no friends her own age seems surprised by the warm farewell of her two cabinmates, one of whom gives her a troll doll as a keepsake. When Janet comes to pick her up, Lacy is underwhelmed to see her mother’s boyfriend Wayne (Will Patton) waiting by the car and instantly attempts to reverse her decision to leave. “I thought nobody liked me, but I was wrong,” she says. Too bad, Janet has already negotiated a partial refund.
The film is divided into four chapters, three of them built around the entry into and exit from their lives of different adults over the summer. Sullen, migraine-prone Wayne is the first, his chief redeeming quality being a daughter around Lacy’s age from a broken marriage, Sequoia (Edie Moon Kearns). The day they spend together at a mall in town is a dizzying foray into a more conventional childhood, with its fast friendships, shared secrets and impromptu adventures. But it leaves Lacy with questions that taciturn Wayne is unwilling to answer.
Beyond her mother’s orbit, Lacy inhabits a fantasy world that is very much her own private retreat, suspended on the edge of childhood and yet somehow hinting at a more sophisticated imagination.
Baker has said in interviews that her all-time favorite film is Fanny and Alexander, which, like Janet Planet, is told from a preteen perspective. There could be a playful homage in Lacy’s dollhouse, which is like an artsy-craftsy homemade version of the children’s puppet theater seen in the opening of Ingmar Bergman’s semi-autobiographical classic.
Built in a box hidden behind a show curtain, it contains weird oven-baked clay and plastic figures (including the troll) that Lacy feeds, puts to bed at night, and — following a performance by a hippie-dippy farm-based theater collective — adorns with regal headdresses made from the wrappers of the Lindt chocolates her patient piano teacher (Mary Shultz) gives her at the conclusion of each lesson.
That al fresco theatrical experience — called a “service,” not a performance by the troupe’s leader Avi (Elias Koteas) — is a countercultural throwback with elements of music, dance, fantastical animal costumes and folkloric mysticism. It reconnects Janet with the second chapter’s subject, her warm but slightly maddening old friend Regina (Sophie Okonedo, superb), who insists the collective is not a cult but nonetheless is eager to flee from the overbearing influence of Avi, with whom she has been in a relationship.
Regina moves in with them for a time, and Lacy is drawn to the visitor’s intense energy. But when the two women get stoned and dive into a rambling conversation about motherhood and life decisions, Janet gets prickly with Regina for judging her. Soon after, Avi stops by, ostensibly to convince Regina to return to the farm, though he shows more interest in Janet, which leads to the third chapter.
Lacy studies her mother’s interactions with these people with a mix of childlike curiosity and scholarly detachment befitting an anthropologist. At times, she appropriates adult concepts like the Buddhist meditations and prostrations Janet learns from Avi, trying them on for size. But always, she seems to be thinking about roles and relationships in ways that are mature beyond her years.
Some of Lacy’s talks with her mother are low-key hilarious, particularly because Janet — in Nicholson’s magnetic performance, earthy yet quietly melancholy and occasionally lost in her own head — responds to even the most melodramatic declarations with candor and seriousness.
“You know what’s funny?” Lacy says flatly at one point. “Every moment of my life is Hell.” Rather than offer platitudinous reassurances that things will get better, Janet emerges from a momentary absence to reply: “I’m actually pretty unhappy too.” In another revealing exchange, Lacy asks, in what seems more a hypothetical question than anything sparked by inchoate desire: “Would you be disappointed if I one day dated a girl?” While telling her that would be fine, Janet observes that she respects her daughter’s forthrightness but had often wondered how that would work with a man.
Baker has described the film as a story “about falling out of love with your mother,” which is what Ziegler conveys with a subtlety and emotional acuity that’s astonishing in such a young and inexperienced actor.
Janet shares with Lacy that she’s always known she could make any man fall in love with her if she really tried, adding, “And I think it’s ruined my life.” Watching Lacy process that confession and continue silently reassessing the woman who has held her enthralled for her entire childhood gives the movie swirling undercurrents that are as dramatically satisfying as any of the clashes between rebelliousness and authority or the hormonal storms of puberty that punctuate the usual depictions of this transitional time in a girl’s life. Ultimately, Lacy seems to be setting a course for a kind of liberation that has remained elusive to her mother, no matter how solemnly Janet chants about it.
The movie contains no non-diegetic music and even limits major camera movement to a relatively small handful of scenes. Nothing distracts from the tender wisdom of its unimpeachably unsentimental gaze and the vividness of its very specific New England milieu. Janet Planet never goes anyplace obvious. It ends at a community contra dance, with Lacy steadfastly refusing to join in, though perhaps contemplating whether she might want to in the future. The flickering play of a full spectrum of feelings across Ziegler’s face in the closing shot is a thing of wonder.