Playwright Annie Baker Launches into Orbit with Her Affecting Debut Janet Planet

Movies Reviews annie baker
Playwright Annie Baker Launches into Orbit with Her Affecting Debut Janet Planet

Writing workshops will sometimes discuss an idea called the imitative fallacy. It’s a pitfall of fiction writing where the author will shape the narrative to mimic a character’s personality: making the writing style related to a bored character intentionally dull, for example, or making a story about an abrasive person equally difficult to spend time with. Annie Baker, writer and director of Janet Planet, has probably experienced countless workshops prior to her career as an acclaimed playwright and, now, an accomplished filmmaker, so it’s borderline insulting to call out an imitative fallacy in her work. But there I was, at several points during Janet Planet, listening to actual grown adults earnestly fumbling through extended philosophical discussions of absolute nonsense, wondering why I had to be subjected to a cult leader and a couple of his sometime disciples in such excruciating detail.

I don’t think Baker has consciously decided to depict boring discussions by boring the audience; sitting in on conversations between Janet (Julianne Nicholson) and Avi (Elias Koteas) is part of her overall filmmaking strategy. Janet Planet immerses the audience in the boonies of Western Massachusetts during the summer and early autumn of 1991, allowing the viewer to absorb countless details of the period, mood, and relationships. Lacy (Zoe Ziegler), who will enter middle school in a few weeks, lives with her mother Janet and doesn’t have real friends of her own, which places her uncomfortably close to the adult orbit of failed romances and rootless non-careers. Her mom has slightly flaky, woo-woo vibes, but she’s found some footing as an acupuncturist; her old friend Regina (Sophie Okonedo) quietly grouses – to Lacy and therefore pretty inappropriately – that a $30,000 inheritance allowed Janet the luxury of going back to school. Regina is fleeing a relationship with Avi, and becomes a rent-free tenant at Janet’s home. She’s preceded by Janet’s sort-of live-in boyfriend Wayne (Will Patton), who seems like a gentle man – so recessive that Baker barely shows his face head-on – until he doesn’t. Through this and other little episodes, Lacy lurks in her own house, the watchful main character in Janet’s story.

Mother and daughter both have what Janet later refers to as “forthrightness” while seeming, to some extent, at a loss for how to make each other happier. In the first scene of the film, Lacy calls home, asking her mother to pick her up early from summer camp in the most dramatic terms possible (albeit spoken in Lacy’s usual unnervingly even-handed tone). When Janet dutifully retrieves her, and Lacy realizes that (a.) at least one of her campmates considers her a friend and (b.) Wayne will be staying with them, the girl reconsiders – too late, of course. That emotional limbo sets the movie on edge immediately, and vividly; it’s a masterful establishment by Baker that paints a portrait of Lacy’s relationships while allowing room for more details to emerge.

Baker’s (and Ziegeler’s) portrait of Lacy as the film continues is frequently stunning in its heartbreaking preadolescent candor. The bespectacled redheaded girl in oversized t-shirts expresses a sober self-analysis (“I usually have a hard time making friends”) that barely masks her sadness and ongoing neediness. She seems perpetually on the hunt for kids her own age, and simultaneously terrified that she’ll find them and be forced to pull away from Janet. The movie’s title sounds like it will describe an overbearingly ethereal, larger-than-life figure; if anything, Janet is plainspoken to a fault, though for all of her weaknesses she clearly provides some measure of stability in her daughter’s life. Nearly every one of Lacy’s scenes is uneasily compelling – a coming-of-age story unbound by genre clichés.

Why, then, does Baker insist on multiple scenes that grind the movie to a halt, even taking into account its deliberate pacing? First, Janet and Regina get high and muse about life; later, Avi leads multiple informal seminars about the self as a form of God. The true unspoken subject is his own tedium, and it’s an unworthy one. Koteas, even less recognizable than usual behind a substantial beard, is a good actor, but it’s not his movie, and Avi doesn’t have enough depth as a character to justify the dramatic filibusters he keeps showing up to present. (It doesn’t help that his relationship to Lacy either barely exists, or is too subtle to detect on a first watch.)

Maybe Baker’s patience and empathy simply exceed my own. Shooting on 16mm celluloid, she captures moments that will become comforting memories, whether they should be or not: Lacy’s race through a local mall with a sadly temporary friend becomes a bucolic romp. The theme music of Clarissa Explains It All watched on a sick day becomes hypnotic. The many great scenes in Janet Planet underscore the frustrations of its few bad ones: Even an emotionally tumultuous childhood can be a lot more absorbing than the indulgences of the adult world.

Director: Annie Baker
Writer: Annie Baker
Starring: Zoe Ziegler, Julianne Nicholson, Sophie Okonedo, Will Patton, Elias Koteas
Release Date: October 8, 2023 (New York Film Festival)

Jesse Hassenger is associate movies editor at Paste. He also writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including Polygon, Inside Hook, Vulture, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching or listening to, and which terrifying flavor of Mountain Dew he has most recently consumed.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin