L Movie Review 2The remarkable mother-daughter drama Janet Planet opens with a wonderfully staged comic moment. It is late at night in the Massachusetts countryside, circa 1991, and a redheaded girl in round glasses runs from a trailer to a nearby barn and makes a call on the wall-mounted payphone. Punching the keypad with the focused awkwardness of a child, the 11-year-old Lacy (miraculous newcomer Zoe Ziegler) threatens to take her own life if the person on the other end of the line doesn’t come to get her, posthaste.

The next day, Lacy changes her mind, but her mother, Janet (Julianne Nicholson), has already arrived to save her daughter from summer camp. “This is a bad pattern,” Janet says when Lacy begs to stay. In all families, no doubt, there are bad patterns at play, but for Janet, a single mother, and Lacy, an only child, patterns that might be deemed unhealthy (or, to put it more kindly, ill-advised) are retained by first-time writer/director Annie Baker for the audience to glean. A Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright (The Flick), Baker pulls us deep into the quotidian details of Janet and Lacey’s world, where long summer walks, hours lost to dollhouse play, and whispered bedtime conversations cover deep currents of feeling. 

Baker structures her film around titled sections devoted to three visitors to Janet and Lacy’s splendid, woods-surrounded home, beginning with Wayne (Will Patton), Janet’s new live-in boyfriend. Much older than Janet, the cranky Wayne barely speaks, and doesn’t appear too happy to see Lacy returning early from camp. They both want the same thing: to have Janet for themselves.

Janet and Lacy still sleep side by side, with Lacy cupping her hand against her mother’s cheek as she likely did when she was a toddler. Wayne, Janet tells Lacy, doesn’t approve of this arrangement; maybe bunking with Lacy was a way for Janet to avoid intimacy with him. The screenplay skimps on Janet’s motivations for just about everything, frustratingly so at times. Yet the mystery of what she wants and needs is the engine that drives the film, even if there is the suggestion, by the movie’s end, that the mystery is starting to wear thin for her daughter.

Lacy spends an afternoon with Wayne’s daughter — they go running through a mall at top speed. The sequence is vibrantly photographed by Swedish cinematographer Maria von Hausswolff, energizing the film but also making us wish, in vain, for more such friends for Lacy. She’s not a kid who runs much. Instead, she spends her time practicing piano on a lap keyboard and tending to the figurines in her dollhouse, some repurposed from salt and pepper shakers. She pours drinks for them from an empty juice box. Like many bookish children, Lacy is most like a kid when she’s alone in her room. She’d host excellent sleepovers.

Near the end of the film, Janet swirls around a dance floor with a series of partners at a local contra dance. No one partner lasts for long, and it could be said that the three guests who move through her house over the course of the movie are much the same — they’re in on a pass. And so it is that Wayne exits (“End Wayne,” as the title card reads), making room for Regina (Sophie Okonedo), an old friend who’s been living on a counterculture-style arts collective/farm as the romantic partner to the group’s leader, Avi (Elias Koteas). After an afternoon theater piece, which might once been called avant-garde, Lacy witnesses Regina weeping to Janet about something or someone (Avi, we assume), and soon, Regina has moved in.

Okonedo, a renowned stage actress best known to movie audiences for her Oscar-nominated work in Hotel Rwanda, presents Regina as a counterbalance to Janet — she wears her heart on her sleeve. Some days that heart is a bit brittle, which will be her undoing with Janet, but there is space in there for others. In a marvelous car scene, Regina’s attention prompts Lacy to express her loneliness, and Lacy suddenly looks so very tired. But the scene is funny, too, because she and Regina agree: Janet has lousy taste in men.  

Once Regina departs, Avi enters, and Janet Planet droops. Guru or cult leader, he’s an energy zapper, and his presence raises more questions than Baker’s elliptical story structure can answer. But let’s forgive her, because once Avi fades from the tale, the filmmaker re-centers her camera on Lacy. She’s sitting in a chair at the county dance, her eyes locked on her mother, who’s across the room smiling happily as she dances with a succession of friends and strangers, oblivious to the fact that her daughter is realizing she’s seen this dance before. 


































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