Janet Planet
Photograph: A24
  • Film
  • Recommended


Janet Planet

4 out of 5 stars

Cult American playwright Annie Baker’s debut is a sparse, strange, beautiful drama about an isolated young girl

Andrzej Lukowski

Time Out says

Annie Baker has an extremely good claim to the title of America’s greatest living playwright. Not that she’d accept it. While her almost uncategorisable oeuvre – an improbable mix of droll Chekhovian naturalism and trippy Lovecraftian metaphysics – has spawned an extraordinary run of acclaimed plays, her refusal to allow her work to be commercialised – no celebrities, no big theatres, no revivals – has left her as a cult figure by design.

What’s striking about her debut film Janet Planet, which she writes and directs, is that on paper the plot sounds relatively conventional, perhaps the recipe for a moderately commercial mumblecore-style comedy. But that is really not what we get.

Lacy (Zoë Ziegler) is a young girl about to start middle school in rural Massachusetts. As the film begins, she calls her mum Janet (Mare of Easttown’s Julianne Nicholson) and declares she’ll kill herself if she has to stay any longer at her summer camp. 

When Janet arrives, Lacy is perplexed that her camp mates are upset she’s going and says she wants to stay. Janet says she’s already got a refund. So begins a long, strange summer in Janet’s isolated house, as almost nothing happens, and quite a lot happens: various men drift in and out of Janet’s life, and she flirts with a bizarre local cult whose grotesque theatrical entertainment adds a distant note of folk horror.

It could all come across as terribly zany, or sentimental. But Baker’s writing and direction has a near-hallucinatory sparseness to it. Lacy is the nominal lead, but she says very little, a couple of killer lines – notably her deadpan confession to her mum that ‘every moment of my life is hell’ – vastly outweighed by the silences. 

The performance from Zoë Ziegler will knock your socks off

With no real friends beyond her mum, Lacy is a sort of satellite to planet Janet, literally always there – they even share a bed – but often forgotten. In one scene, Janet and her sort-of-friend Regina (Sophie Okonedo) are having a fraught conversation, obviously under the influence. It is a shock when we abruptly discover Lacy has been in the room the entire time, sitting passively.

Really Janet Planet is about two deeply vulnerable women – or a one woman and a girl – who have a relationship that is beautiful, precious and also pathetic for being pretty much all that either of them has of permanence in this life. 

Nicholson is excellent in the more conventional performance, a middle aged woman torn between seeking pleasure and acting responsibly, who acknowledges something fundamental has gone amiss with her life. 

It’s the performance from Ziegler that’ll really knock your socks off, though. She doesn’t have a whole lot to say, and when she does speak, it tends to be very quiet. But her owlish, bespectacled face is astonishing: a twitching, endlessly expressive portrait of uncertainty and suppressed feeling. She never kicks off, or cries, or gets angry. All that seems buried too deep to access. She just goes on living as best she can through this sun-blasted rural summer, semi-content to exist as an extension of her mother.

Where most of Baker’s recent plays have featured supernatural elements, Janet Planet does not. But the wonder of Baker’s direction – abetted by fine cinematography from Maria von Hausswolff and beautifully dense, lush sound design from Paul Hse – is that it finds the otherworldly in the mundane. A lonely tweenage summer spent bored with mum becomes a vividly strange symphony.

In US theaters Jun 21 and UK and Ireland cinemas Jul 19.

Cast and crew

  • Director:Annie Baker
  • Screenwriter:Annie Baker
  • Cast:
    • Julianne Nicholson
    • Will Patton
    • Sophie Okonedo
    • Zoë Ziegler
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