Indie Mother-Daughter Drama 'Janet Planet' Is Likably Down-to-Earth | Movie+TV Reviews | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Indie Mother-Daughter Drama 'Janet Planet' Is Likably Down-to-Earth

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Published July 3, 2024 at 10:00 a.m.


Julianne Nicholson gets a well-deserved lead role in this indie drama about a hippie mom and her quirky daughter. - COURTESY OF A24
  • Courtesy Of A24
  • Julianne Nicholson gets a well-deserved lead role in this indie drama about a hippie mom and her quirky daughter.

Massachusetts native Annie Baker made her cinematic directorial debut with Janet Planet, which premiered last year at the Telluride Film Festival. Also a playwright, Baker won a Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2014, and among her works are three plays that take place in the fictional town of Shirley, Vt. Though Janet Planet is set in rural western Massachusetts, expect plenty of crunchy Vermont vibes from this low-key indie drama, currently playing at Merrill's Roxy Cinemas in Burlington and the Savoy Theater in Montpelier.

The deal

It's 1991, and 11-year-old Lacy (Zoe Ziegler) feels alone and friendless at summer camp. In the dead of night, she trudges to the nearest pay phone, calls her single mom, licensed acupuncturist Janet (Julianne Nicholson), and announces matter-of-factly that she'll "kill herself" if she has to stay any longer.

That's how Janet and Lacy end up spending the summer together at home, where Lacy watches intently as people come and go, drawn like moths to her hippie mom's flame. Their first house guest is moody boyfriend Wayne (Will Patton), followed by rootless actor Regina (Sophie Okonedo), who's been living with an immersive theater troupe that bears a striking resemblance to Glover's Bread and Puppet. (It's actually Double Edge Theatre of Ashfield, Mass.) Intensely possessive of her mother, Lacy vies with the newcomers for her attention, while Janet reconsiders her own choices — in particular, the ease with which she falls in love.

Will you like it?

There are slice-of-life films, and then there are slice-of-life films. Most indie movies about girls and their moms — such as Greta Gerwig's Lady Bird (see sidebar) — hit certain expected coming-of-age-tale beats. Not this one. Dialogue is sparse in Janet Planet, and a fair bit of the story is told in lengthy wide shots. In other scenes, Baker draws our attention to details that rarely appear in movies at all — a rumbling microwave, a fallen earring, the scraps of tape and paper where a magazine cover used to hang on the wall.

When NPR asked Baker whether she considers Janet Planet a coming-of-age movie, Baker replied that she doesn't because "I don't know what coming-of-age means." It may be tempting to dismiss this statement as disingenuous, along with her claim that "I just don't think about my life when I'm writing." Both serve to fend off standard interview questions about whether the movie is autobiographical.

Watching Janet Planet, however, teaches us to take Baker at her word. These vignettes of Lacy's aimless vacation life — remember when summer felt endless? — remind us just what a convenient fictional construct "coming of age" is. In this movie, there is no linear progression from innocence to experience, only a leisurely wandering from one half-formed new revelation to another.

At 11, bespectacled, imaginative Lacy already has a fully formed personality, one that sometimes expresses itself in amusingly "adult" utterances: "Every moment of my life is hell," she tells her mother casually. With the wrong young actor in the part, Lacy could have been insufferably twee. But Ziegler is believable in every scene, never self-consciously cute or charming.

That makes her an excellent match for Nicholson, a stellar supporting actor ("Mare of Easttown") who too seldom has a worthy showcase for her talents as a lead. Lithe, freckled Janet embodies the hippie "go with the flow" ethos, rarely making even feeble attempts to mold her daughter into her own image. Rather than fret over Lacy's declaration of existential angst, she offers, "I'm actually pretty unhappy, too."

While Lacy is uncompromising in her self-assertion, Janet is more inclined to bend to the will of others, transforming a little for each new friend or lover. This mother-daughter complementarity rings true; some moms raise the girls they wish they had been. But it also rings true when Janet reveals a core of egotism beneath her mellow.

No one is just one thing in this movie, a lesson brought home by a scene in which Lacy discovers a doll that does triple duty as Little Red Riding Hood, the grandmother and the wolf. The head of the theater company (Elias Koteas) lectures Janet and Lacy on the oneness of all life, but Lacy is already discovering how the boundaries between people can blur in a far more immediate way.

Janet Planet is a slow-paced, quiet film, and some viewers may find it too elliptical for their comfort, too parsimonious with its insights into its characters. When Lacy gets sick on the first day of school, for instance, we never learn whether her illness is coincidental, psychosomatic or feigned (as Janet suspects). Baker leaves the question for us to chew on.

Other viewers may find Janet Planet powerfully evocative of childhood, especially if they grew up in a New England boho subculture like the one depicted here. For anyone who needs one, the film offers a bracing demonstration that having easygoing parents is no recipe for happiness.

margot harrison

If you like this, try...

The Quiet Girl (2022; Hulu, Kanopy, rentable): For another powerfully naturalistic performance by a young actor, watch Colm Bairéad's indie about a shy 9-year-old who gains confidence in a foster family.

The Last Days of Chez Nous (1992; Kanopy): Australian director Gillian Armstrong (the 1994 Little Women) crafted a compelling portrayal of mother-daughter-sister bonds in a bohemian family in this Golden Bear nominee.

Lady Bird (2017; Max, rentable): If seeing Nicholson in a lead role thrills you, you'll also love Laurie Metcalf's Oscar-nominated performance as mom to a rebellious daughter in the directorial debut of Gerwig (Barbie, the 2019 Little Women).

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