Janet Planet (United States, 2023)

June 30, 2024
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Janet Planet Poster

Janet Planet explores the mother/daughter relationship between single mom Janet (Julianne Nicholson) and her strong-willed, socially awkward child, 11-year old Lacy (Zoe Ziegler). Although characterized by strong performances across-the-board, the film moves at a glacial pace with little happening during the course of the nearly two-hour running time and the central relationship failing to develop in a compelling fashion.

Events (such as they are) unfold during the summer of 1991 at a cabin in the New England woods where Janet and Lacy live. When we first encounter the duo, Lacy is manipulating her mother to bring her home from an overnight camp where she’s not having a good time. (“I’m going to kill myself if you don’t come get me.”) During the course of the film, three outside figures enter and exit their orbit. First is Wayne (Will Patton), Janet’s grumpy boyfriend who seems more like a creepy leech than a partner. Then there’s Regina (Sophie Okonedo), an old friend of Janet’s in need of a place to stay after breaking up with a boyfriend. Finally, along comes Avi (Elias Koteas), Regina’s ex, with his hippie notions of love and religion.

Janet Planet is emotionally inert, with writer/director Annie Baker’s straightforward style keeping viewers at arm’s-length from the characters. Her approach encourages observation but not engagement. The interaction between Janet and Lacy, which comprises the core of the proceedings, showcases a co-dependent affair that rarely feels warm or vital. There occasional breakthroughs – moments that escape the artifice that suffuses too much of the movie – but Baker fails to sustain them. Janet Planet has the episodic trajectory of a road trip although no one is traveling anywhere (movement and momentum being foreign to Baker’s vision). Characters come and go with little lasting impact on Janet and her daughter or their static relationship. One might be tempted to call this a coming-of-age story except that the characters are in the same place at minute 110 as they are at minute 1.

Most of the film’s problems relate to the writing with its threadbare plot and contrived dialogue rather than other aspects of the production. This a beautifully shot motion picture that makes ample use of the setting to suggest two characters who are geographically and emotionally isolated. The acting, especially by leads Julianne Nicholson and Zoey Zielger, is strong. Those two inhabit their characters fully even though they are underserved by the screenplay. There are times when a degree of artistic pretentiousness comes into play. Some conversations devolve into uninteresting philosophical debates and there’s a bizarre sequence involving a “play” that is equal parts cringeworthy and tedious. (I’m uncertain whether Baker buys into this as genuine art or is being satirical – her intent is unclear.)

The setting evokes a simpler, pre-Internet/pre-cellphone era but it seems earlier than the explicitly stated date of 1991. Perhaps it’s the rural location but the vibe is more strongly late-1970s or early 1980s. Regardless (the actual date isn’t germane), Baker does a good job rolling back the clock to a time when toaster ovens were still in common use, microwave ovens were bigger and didn’t have rotating trays, and children had to find distractions other than playing with an iPad.

The presence of veteran character actor Elias Koteas recalls the early films of Canadian director Atom Egoyan (the two collaborated three times during the 1990s and early 2000s), whose deliberate and unhurried style was not dissimilar to the one employed by Baker. Egoyan, however, achieved a level of emotional immediacy and character intimacy that eludes Baker. Although a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, her transition from the stage to screen (in this, her feature debut) is an uncertain one, emphasizing the differences between the two mediums. I can see aspects of Janet Planet that might work better in front of a live audience better than in a movie theater. Considering the plaudits being lavished on the film, I found it to be a singularly disappointing experience. Although not without its merits, it’s far from a standout even when one considers how lackluster the current indie/art house landscape has become.

Janet Planet (United States, 2023)

Director: Annie Baker
Cast: Julianne Nicholson, Zoe Ziegler, Elias Koteas, Sophie Okonedo, Will Patton
Screenplay: Annie Baker
Cinematography: Maria von Hausswolf
U.S. Distributor: A24
Run Time: 1:50
U.S. Release Date: 2024-06-28
MPAA Rating: "PG-13" (Profanity, Drugs)
Genre: Drama
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.66:1