‘Janet Planet’: Annie Baker’s Mother-Daughter Journey Becomes a Reflection on Growth at Any Age

Childhood seems so innocent in retrospect. Some of us are lucky to have had a fairly normal one. What is universally common is that preadolescence for many was pretty frustrating, scary and punctuated by boredom. “Janet Planet” is a tender directorial debut by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Annie Baker that knows how to wonderfully meander through a young girl’s existence. On one level, it’s the latest in millennial nostalgia, looking back at what it was like to be a kid in the 1990s. But it’s also a very keen study in what a particular life feels like from the vantage point of its main character. It’s actually much harder than it seems to truly empathize with that angle, from a time before we really knew anything but felt everything.

An immensely memorable Zoe Ziegler plays Lacy, who is 11 in 1991 Western Massachusetts (from where the playwright is from as well). She clearly doesn’t like summer camp and calls her mom, Janet (Julianne Nicholson), with a very explicit, though obviously insincere, threat to kill herself. Janet picks her up and drives them to their home deep in the woods. Working as an acupuncturist, Janet can easily provide as a single mom but tends to bring home subpar boyfriends. Wayne (Will Patton) is the latest and is clearly troubled. Before long, he and Lacy seem to be in competition for Janet’s attention. As months pass, Wayne is out of the picture and other figures drift into the mother and daughter’s shared life. Both are on journeys of self-discovery. Lacy has her routine of piano practice and likes to indulge in her imagination with figurines. Janet keeps attracting new lovers, but it’s more out of a need to wrestle with coming to terms with who she wants to be.

Theater devotees know Annie Baker for her contemplative works such as “Circle Mirror Transformation” and “The Flick.” Her transition to film is impressive in how it is devoid of the usual traps playwrights attempting cinema fall into. There is no need for lengthy monologues or pyrotechnics in the acting. Her approach is similar in some ways to films like Jonah Hill’s “Mid90s.” Cinematographer Maria von Hausswolff turns the wooded surroundings into a hazy territory where Lacy observes adult interactions from behind windows, not quite comprehending what’s going on. She’s sweet but precocious, attached to Janet out of a fear of that emerging transition into adolescence. She is also smart and when someone asks if she has friends, she laments that she does not and “it’s a complete mystery to me.” But Lacy too is really all Janet has, so their bond has a special, simple necessity. 

Not all childhoods are like Lacy’s, which also borders on the bohemian. Janet hangs out with artsy types who put together getaways with avant-garde performances. They read poetry and grow vegetables to give away for free. Most clearly look like middle-aged remnants from the ‘60s. For Lacy, it’s the secular equivalent of kids who grow up in enclosed Christian homes and then find it difficult to enter the wider world and its strangeness. Janet herself is still a seeker. She makes friends with Regina (Sophie Okonedo), and when they get high the moment doesn’t grow into comedy, but into two women opening up about their own childhoods. Maybe because Janet doesn’t hide much from her daughter, and speaks with her honestly about the ways of people, Lacy then finds summer camp to be so unbearable. 

“Janet Planet” isn’t about a clear-cut plot or destination. Not every character we encounter in life demands judgment. Janet meets a new potential boyfriend, Avi (Elias Koteas), a Buddhist with a “Free Tibet” sticker on his car, who speaks with such low, patient tones about everything. He isn’t bad or amazing, just rather low-key for a very independent woman. In one of the film’s great scenes, where Baker lets the camera just linger, Lacy asks Janet if she would be upset if she ever dated a girl. Janet replies that she wouldn’t and even wonders if a headstrong, assertive woman could ever really find happiness with a man. It’s wonderfully honest, insightful writing. Janet even admits she knows she can easily make any man fall in love with her, and realizes this could be a source of her compulsive dating habits.

It is that sense of human detail combined with an empathy for Lacy that makes “Janet Planet” so immersive. When Lacy suddenly freezes at the prospect of having to start the sixth grade, we get it. The wider world feels daunting when you’re so attached to home. Yet, the conversations Janet has with her daughter will surely shape her for years to come. Ziegler and Nicholson are so natural and fluid together that it is truly virtuoso work. Childhood has all the shadows and flickers of our adult journeys. From our early attempts at processing life, we see lives come and go around our elders. We remember some, forget others and are marked by a few. “Janet Planet” doesn’t struggle to spell it all out. Baker simply allows her characters to live and breathe in front of the camera, letting them linger as if they were real people we have met. 

Janet Planet” releases June 21 in select theaters and expands June 28 in theaters nationwide.