Janet Planet is a journey into a rural world in western Massachusetts full of affectation, all kinds of decoration, eccentric frills, self-conscious silence and pause and languid nostalgic drama. The film, screening at this year’s New York Film Festival, is the directorial debut of Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Annie Baker and plays in a single, precious sub-Kelly Reichardt register, every second of rehearsed images, sounds and performances. Gently quirky to the point of despair, it looks back fondly on times gone by, but the only past it makes you long for is the two hours before it begins.
Late one night at bunkhouse, adolescent Lacy (Zoe Ziegler) sneaks out of her bunk to a pay phone to call her mother Janet (Julianne Nicholson), declaring, “I’m going to kill myself… if you don’t come and get me.” .” This is blatant manipulation and Janet knows it, but she agrees, picks up her daughter and tells her, “This is a bad pattern.” When Lacy sees that her mother is with her newest boyfriend, Wayne (Will Patton), a stoic and unfriendly creep, she thinks, but without success. She will now spend the rest of her summer vacation in her house in the forest, taking piano lessons from an older neighbor, going for walks with her mother and carefully arranging and looking at the many figures – now also a troll doll that she was given as a camp gift. Girlfriend – that she is standing on a bookshelf that has been converted to resemble a stage, with curtains that open and close.
There isn’t much meaningful action Janet Planet; Baker frames her premiere film as a languid throwback piece that’s heavily influenced by the atmosphere of the early ’90s. Be it Lacy sitting on a couch, playing a keyboard on her lap while a fan spins on a side table, or the girl and her mother strolling through the area’s tree-lined streets, the mood is calm and precise in a deliberately mannered style. Baker’s compositions often position Lacy at the bottom of the frame to emphasize her ground-level perspective, and they also assume her limited perspective as she stares at adults through windows, around corners, and car seats. Everything is perfectly aligned and italicized, as are the many audio elements, from the click of a cassette tape playing into the car deck, to the incessant chirping and buzzing of insects outside the characters’ residence, to the sparkling melodies of a puppeteer-themed music box, which is ultimately thematic reminiscent of a late poem read to Janet at a romantic picnic.
Baker usually cuts to sightseeing – a teacup ride at the mall; a tick is burned by a match and flushed down the toilet; a reversible Little Red Riding Hood doll – designed to evoke a very special feeling of time and place. However, such gestures have a certain tenderness, as if someone were looking at me. Their dialogue is even more stilted, with characters generally speaking no more than one sentence at a time (and slowly), and responses arriving several seconds later. The effect of this halting rhythm of conversation is that everyone gives the impression that they are thinking (and Feeling!) really, really hard about what they want to say even though nothing of substance or interest comes out of their mouths, making every exchange an exercise in teeth-grinding patience.
When she’s not sleeping with Janet and hugging her head with the clingy craziness of a child inappropriately tied to its parents, Lacy does very little, and Janet, who runs an acupuncture business out of her home, doesn’t do much else. Janet Planet is dramatically simple, but its real problem is pretension, and the only person who escapes (relatively) unscathed is Ziegler, who exudes believable confusion, curiosity, and concern about her place in life. Baker divides her story into chapters dealing with the people who slide in and out of the duo’s lives, starting with Wayne and followed by Janet’s old friend Regina (Sophie Okonedo) – whom she hasn’t seen in years and with whom she reconnects at a hippie children’s costume performance on a farm – and then Regina’s ex-cult leader Avi (Elias Koteas). This structure, embodied by title cards that announce its beginning and end, is another in a relentless series of cutesy flourishes that draw attention to the director’s hand.
Still, Nicholson is radiant as Janet Janet Planet intentionally left it opaque. Her protagonist comes across as a woman in search of herself, direction and fulfillment, and so Lacy’s story is an attempt to understand life and herself through the prism of a beloved mother who is also searching for answers. The relationship between Janet and Lacy is extremely close and yet also distant; A scene in which Lacy watches her mother dancing in the country while twirling in circles with a bevy of partners suggests the gap between them and between Lacy and an adult world she hasn’t quite entered yet that she doesn’t want to understand. However, like virtually every other aspect of her film, Baker’s close-ups take great pains to convey the depth of emotion, compromising the very sentimentality she’s aiming for.
Lacy’s occasionally blunt statements are all that can be described as humor Janet Planet, which primarily opts for a very calm tone defined by an audio landscape of calm ambient noise and minimal and mechanical character movements; Even the way Lacy turns the pages of her sheet music is delivered with the absolute lightest of touches. None of the director’s gentle and quiet formal and narrative embellishments would be offensive in and of themselves. Together, however, they turn the proceedings into an oppressively theatrical affair in which nothing seems all that natural and therefore there is little meaningful discussion of Janet and Lacy’s individual and shared needs.
“What are we even talking about?” Regina asks during a late-night conversation with Janet, and the question applies to virtually every back-and-forth Janet Planet, where what is said is superficially banal but is meant to linger in the air – in all the pauses between each word spoken – with weighty meaning. Replete with lengthy discussions and aesthetic contrivances and imbued with a kitschy fondness for the early ’90s era, it’s the kind of film whose enormous, transparent effort to make us feel what the filmmaker is feeling is inversely proportional to its impact .
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