Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Annie Baker’s “Janet Planet” Is an Exquisitely Moving Film Début

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The first time we meet Janet in “Janet Planet,” a wondrous début feature from the celebrated playwright Annie Baker, she is standing on a rural road a little way from the camera. The distance is subtle, but crucial. Glimpsed from afar, surrounded by grass and sunshine, Janet (Julianne Nicholson) is a vision of loveliness—serene, earthy, and a little remote. We’re seeing her through the eyes of her eleven-year-old daughter, Lacy (Zoe Ziegler), an owlish misfit with whom she shares a close bond, though we can already guess that things are about to change. Janet has come to fetch her daughter from summer camp, yet summer is far from over; Lacy called the night before, demanding liberation or death. “I’m gonna kill myself if you don’t come get me,” she announced, before calmly replacing the receiver. (Yes, the receiver; the movie takes place in 1991.)

If Janet was at all disturbed by Lacy’s threat, she doesn’t show it now. Instead, she fixes Lacy with a smile, devoid of reproach or alarm, and pulls her into a warm, reassuring hug. She knows her daughter’s anxieties too well to be taken aback by them, and loves her too deeply to hold them against her. Lacy loves her mother, too, yet the quality and intensity of that love will fluctuate over the remaining summer months. You could call “Janet Planet” a coming-of-age story, but that would risk lumping it together with countless movies it doesn’t much resemble. It’s more a story about a child at the stage where one moves beyond the intense, almost romantic, idolization of a parent—a process that, as Baker is aware, is gradual, full of hesitations and stumbles. To capture a process of disillusionment requires uncommon patience, plus keen powers of observation. Hers are up to the challenge.

It will surprise none of Baker’s admirers to hear that, onscreen as well as onstage, she is attuned to the quotidian, allergic to melodrama, and borderline monkish in her appreciation for silence. Back home in woodsy western Massachusetts, Janet, an acupuncturist, meets clients at her in-house studio, leaving Lacy to her own devices. Janet has a boyfriend on the premises, too: a terse, tetchy older fellow named Wayne (Will Patton), who mostly keeps to himself. And so we watch, for unhurried stretches, as Lacy busies herself practicing piano on an electronic keyboard and directing a makeshift puppet theatre peopled with a collection of tiny figurines. She is alone, but not exactly lonely. The house is awash with sunlight, streaming in through enormous windows, bouncing off high, vaulted ceilings, encasing her like a wood-panelled womb—a rustic extension of her mother’s embrace.

At night, though, as darkness descends and the chirping of crickets intensifies, Lacy grows restless and covetous of Janet’s attention. She insists that her mother sleep beside her; when Janet tries to slip out, Lacy forces her to leave behind a piece of herself, a strand of her hair. (Hair figures frequently, and evocatively, into this micro-layered story: watch how Lacy’s red-brown locks billow in the breeze during a car ride, or how her curiosity leads her, mid-shower, to sample a visitor’s unfamiliar-looking shampoo.) If there’s a reason Lacy clings to her mother so fiercely, it’s to thwart Wayne, who is obviously put out by the girl’s premature return from camp. You can’t entirely blame him; Lacy can be blunt and overly inquisitive, and Ziegler, a remarkable discovery, doesn’t soften any rough edges. But you also can’t entirely blame Lacy, and her presence merely hastens the inevitable end of Janet’s relationship—the latest, we sense, of many.

“I think you have to break up with him,” Lacy says, when Janet asks her advice. Does their exchange reveal heartening depths of parental trust, or is it a warning sign of mother-daughter codependency? The camera, spying on Janet and Lacy as they walk and talk on a dirt road, betrays nothing. (The cinematographer is Maria von Hausswolff, who brought her eye for natural splendor to the magnificent Icelandic drama “Godland,” from 2022.) And Nicholson, in an exquisite performance of pinpoint subtlety, doesn’t try to sway judgment in either direction. When Lacy later asks how her mother would feel if she were to someday date a girl, Janet’s response is an uncommonly thoughtful one, evincing a kind of honesty that I suspect not every parent would sanction. It’s not just an answer; it’s a declaration of faith in the person Lacy is becoming, and who she already is.

“Janet Planet” consists of three loosely plotted chapters, the first of which ends with Wayne’s departure. The following two each center on a new house guest. One of these is Janet’s longtime friend Regina (Sophie Okonedo), who belongs to a theatrical-agricultural hippie commune, and whom we first see at an outdoor performance, monologuing in full force. (“I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a cult,” Janet says to Lacy. “What’s a cult?” her daughter asks.) Regina is warm, chatty, and free-spirited; she is also hypercritical, entitled, and blind to her hypocrisies. Up next in the guest rotation, through mysterious yet oddly logical circumstances, is Regina’s charismatic ex-partner Avi (Elias Koteas), who happens to be the leader of the not-really-a-cult. He immerses Janet in liberation-speak and reads to her from Rainer Maria Rilke’s “Duino Elegies.” And then he, too, is gone, as shifty and unreliable as his words.

It’s here that at least one of the title’s meanings drifts into focus. Janet Planet is the name of Janet’s acupuncture studio; it’s also an allusion—oblique and unacknowledged—to the nickname that Van Morrison gave the songwriter Janet Rigsbee, who, during their five-year marriage, inspired some of his most well-known songs. (Although don’t expect “Crazy Love” on the soundtrack, which consists mainly of the classical pieces that Lacy is practicing—those, and the crickets.) But the title is best understood as a lesson in social astronomy: Janet is the planet who, with subdued but undeniable magnetism, pulls various human satellites into her orbit. But Lacy can see, more clearly than most, that Janet’s celestial radiance has begun to dwindle, eclipsed by the disappointments of middle age and the frustrations of an unmet longing.

Baker’s most prominent work remains “The Flick,” which won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for drama, and which follows the travails of three employees at a small Massachusetts art-house cinema. The action, such as it is, unfolds inside the theatre, during post-screening cleaning sessions; emotional truth emerges as reluctantly as it does in real life, one stale popcorn kernel at a time. Like many of Baker’s plays, including “Circle Mirror Transformation” (2009) and “The Antipodes” (2017), “The Flick” pushes against the trappings of what we ordinarily think of as theatrical realism or naturalism—two concepts that feel especially reductive when applied to Baker’s leisurely pacing, her precise use of silences and pauses, and the persuasively humdrum quality of her dialogue. But the play is also an expression of profound movie love, replete with wide-ranging cinematic references and even a full-throated defense of old-school film projection—a manifesto against an era of ever more aggressive digital encroachment.

If “The Flick” was Baker’s theatre-based tribute to movies, “Janet Planet” is her cinematic ode to the theatre. There is Lacy’s figurine company, which, apart from the wry inclusion of a bright-haired troll doll (a very nineties obsession), feels like a tip of the hat to Ingmar Bergman’s “Fanny and Alexander” (1982). There is also the alfresco performance that introduces us to Regina: a beguiling Dionysian spectacle, with actors in flowing white costumes and horned animal masks, which Baker records with an almost anthropological wonderment, plus the faintest whisper of satire. Even as we register, and maybe share, Lacy’s bewilderment, we also feel the filmmaker’s rigorous fascination with what she’s showing us.

We are not, in other words, locked inside Lacy’s head at all times. Indeed, if there’s a reason “Janet Planet” never succumbs to the rosy, banalizing glow of nineties nostalgia, it’s Baker’s ability to juxtapose multiple perspectives in the same static frame—a gift that feels closely rooted in her theatre work. Meanwhile, it’s a pleasure to watch her avail herself, for the first time, of a filmmaker’s tools. Now that she can cut swiftly from one setup to the next, her scenes are shorter and tighter, less dependent on a sense of prolonged duration. And there’s a startling sequence whose effects would be difficult to reproduce through stagecraft alone: Janet and Lacy attend a local dance, which Baker has the inspiration to film as a kind of human constellation, a roundelay of fast-moving, not quite heavenly bodies. By the end, nothing obvious has changed, and yet mother and daughter—one grinning on the dance floor, the other watching quietly from the sidelines—seem strangely, and perhaps permanently, out of alignment. It’s a gifted filmmaker who can draw blood with a single cut, and turn the distance between two souls into a chasm. ♦



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