In Janet Planet, silence is everything. Playwright Annie Baker’s directorial debut thrives in the stretches of time between words, entire scenes sometimes playing out solely accompanied by ambient noise.
That focus on silence comes as no surprise given Baker’s previous work. Pick up any of her plays, from the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Flick to The Aliens, and you’ll find meticulously scripted pauses, right down to how long they should last. However, these pauses are by no means dead space; they are intentional opportunities for characters to fully inhabit their worlds, to consider their thoughts and go about their everyday actions. They’re just one of the many ways in which Baker so thoroughly captures how people actually speak to and interact with one another — an ability she carries from the stage to the screen with Janet Planet.
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What’s Janet Planet about?
Janet Planet introduces us to rising sixth grader Lacy (Zoe Ziegler) and her mother, the eponymous Janet (Julianne Nicholson). The two are practically inseparable, mostly by Lacy’s doing. At summer camp, she threatens to kill herself unless Janet picks her up. Upon returning home, Lacy demands Janet sleep in her bed with her, then asks to keep “a little piece” of her mom when Janet tries to return to her own room. (Janet hands over a strand of hair.)
In the time she can’t spend with Janet, such as when Janet is seeing her acupuncture clients, Lacy busies herself with piano lessons and tending to a diorama she’s built in her room. She also acts as a quiet observer of her mother’s life, watching Janet connect with romantic interests and friends despite not fully understanding the ins and outs of adulthood herself.
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Among the figures who come into Janet and Lacy’s lives are Janet’s boyfriend, Wayne (Will Patton); her old friend Regina (Sophie Okonedo), who’s just left a commune of actors and farmers that may or may not be a cult; and Avi (Elias Koteas), the leader of said commune who takes a liking to Janet. Janet Planet announces these characters’ arrivals (and departures) with matter-of-fact title cards that both give the film a wry sense of structure and mirror how Lacy marks time based on her mother’s own relationships.
The strength of each “section” of Janet Planet varies, with my personal favorite being the one that centers on Regina. Instead of focusing on romantic connections, this portion of the film dives deeper into female friendship. Nicholson and Okonedo share a great rapport while talking about their past mistakes and what’s happened in their lives since they last spoke. Plus, Lacy gets more of a chance to interact with Regina than she does with Wayne or Avi, revealing some of her stronger opinions and thoughts about her mother that she can’t share directly with her.
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Otherwise, Lacy remains less an active participant than an onlooker throughout, something Baker establishes through long, static shots of other characters from Lacy’s point of view and through her trademark silences. Here, Lacy takes in the people around her, examining them before asking the occasional pointed question. Elsewhere, Baker shows people speaking but removes the sound of their dialogue, making us infer their words from Lacy’s facial expressions. Newcomer Ziegler’s reactions are revelatory in themselves, as is her entire performance, complementing Baker’s strong yet quietly sparse directorial vision. The film sometimes shifts to Janet’s perspective, but it’s certainly at its strongest and most developed while we’re seeing the world through Lacy’s inquisitive, if sometimes bewildered, eyes.
Janet Planet is a moving snapshot of a mother-daughter relationship.
Wayne, Regina, and Avi may come and go, but the heart of Janet Planet is undeniably the relationship between Janet and Lacy. There’s an easy intimacy here, glimpsed in scenes where Janet combs Lacy’s hair or takes care of her when she’s sick. But there’s also a tension: Lacy is attached to Janet to the point of codependency, while Janet sometimes appears to be stifled by Lacy’s constant closeness, even though she loves her daughter.
Wayne, Regina, and Avi may come and go, but the heart of ‘Janet Planet’ is undeniably the relationship between Janet and Lacy.
These are feelings that Janet can’t quite express to Lacy, and they aren’t the only ones. One night, while the two lie in bed together, Lacy confides in Janet, “Every moment of my life is hell.” Obviously, these are the last words Janet wants to hear from her daughter — especially as the moment in which Lacy speaks them is a non-hellish instance of calm. Yet Janet seems to find some truth in them too, confessing that she doesn’t feel happy either, that her ability to make men fall in love with her sometimes scares her.
Janet’s confession is a rare instance of her truly letting Lacy in. At other moments, she keeps Lacy at arm’s length, becoming a somewhat unknowable figure to a daughter who just wants to understand her. Nicholson sinks naturally into the sometimes mystifying version of Janet that Lacy sees, but she also imbues Janet with enough warmth, fatigue, and desire that it’s clear we’re watching a well-rounded person, and not just the socially permeated idea of a mother.
In many ways, Janet Planet and the mother-daughter relationship at its core are reminiscent of another equally stunning, introspective debut: Charlotte Wells’s Aftersun. Both films center on only children trying desperately to comprehend their inscrutable parents, and both carry the sense of painful nostalgia that comes with a formative summer vacation.
But while Wells’s film weaves between its characters’ past and future, Baker’s film anchors itself firmly in their present. Every line, every beat of Ziegler and Nicholson’s performances — and yes, every silence — contributes to this thoroughly grounded, thoroughly in-the-moment portrait of Janet and Lacy’s lives. This is a film that washes over you in a wave of quiet subtleties, marking a profoundly striking debut.
Janet Planet was reviewed out of the New York Film Festival. It will be released in 2024.