Thursday, July 18, 2024

Movie Review: ‘Janet Planet’ is a Subtle Look At Memory and Time

Director: Annie Baker
Writer: Annie Baker
Stars: Zoe Ziegler, Luke Philip Bosco, June Walker Grossman

Synopsis: In rural Western Massachusetts, 11-year-old Lacy spends the summer of 1991 at home, enthralled by her own imagination and the attention of her mother, Janet. As the months pass, three visitors enter their orbit, all captivated by Janet.

With her debut feature film, Janet Planet, playwright Annie Baker writes and directs one of the most delightful films you’re likely to see all year. There are many factors that contribute to the warmth that basically pours off the screen, but the most apparent is immediately clear. It’s Zoe Ziegler’s performance as Lacy, the young girl around which this film is structured. We meet 11-year-old Lacy as she wakes up in the middle of the night. She sneaks outside to a public telephone and makes a very comical call, but to Lacy, it appears to be a grave one. She wants to go home immediately, and in the morning, her mother, Janet (Julianne Nicholson), comes to pick Lacy up from camp. Lacy walks towards her mother calmly and casually, drops everything she’s holding, and is provided with that critical embrace so many of us might remember from childhood. At such a young age, the feeling that the very expansive world around us emanates can become quite crushing. While we may not be even remotely aware of the struggles that come with adulthood, as children, we very much have our own sets of worries. Internal dilemmas feel that much larger when they’re the sole focus of our lives. And without time, it’s difficult to process such overwhelming feelings.  

At an age where summers were devoted to practicing piano or playing with toys, or just casually adventuring around the house, moments of solitude could become quite overbearing. In the case of Lacy, being away from her home and her mother appears to have been the breaking point. I too have called home from a sleepaway camp and begged to be picked up, and what should be exciting and refreshing becomes something far worse. It’s a clear-cut indication, at least in my mind as a child, that the universe was telling me I wasn’t supposed to be there. I was supposed to be back home, watching television or making up games to play in the backyard. We are all looking for some semblance of familiarity at that age to calm us, rather than venture out into the unknown journey of growing up and growing apart. And Janet Planet is interested in what it means to slowly lose that sense of familiarity. Whether or not it’s for better or for worse, is left to us to be decided.

Now, the film may be called Janet Planet, but much like a solar system, Janet’s orbit revolves around the most important star there is: Lacy. Nothing is ever outright revealed through the film, but one can’t imagine single mother Janet is having the easiest time raising the young girl. It would appear that, more often than not, Janet puts Lacy before herself. And these decisions come to a head and provide the film with a very specific conflict. Made up of extended vignettes, Baker both introduces and removes a trio of individuals brought into Lacy’s life in a very classical playwright fashion. Upon first use, it’s a moment worthy of a chuckle. Yet over time, it takes shape into something fundamental about the film. 

Lacy is an inquisitive girl in the very funny way children often are. She’s deeply curious, and hides no questions, even in the face of being told to leave a room or to be quiet. It’s not that she’s unaware of what’s occurring, as she does appear to be very intelligent, but more so that she just can’t help herself. One gets the sense that she’s asking countless questions in the hopes of hearing a perfect answer. And that answer will hopefully unlock the entire mystery of this new person who has found themselves in the orbit of Janet and Lacy’s seemingly idyllic life. While on the surface, it may appear the two are living a comfortable, remote life in the Western Massachusetts woods, the quiet moments of reflection in this film reveal the complicated set of emotions at work. And it’s in these tender moments between mother and daughter that the film comes to life. But it also reveals what I feel the film struggles with a bit.

The main issue that appears to plague Baker’s script structure is seemingly its indecision to focus primarily on Lacy or Janet. There’s obviously no issue with the film being interested in both characters as two halves of a larger piece. But personally, it feels a bit as if both characters get the short end of the stick by the time we emerge on the other side. The questions and emotions Janet Planet brings forth over its soothing runtime are certainly felt, but one may find themselves asking for a bit more to chew on as the credits roll. Luckily, Baker’s screenplay is a dense one, and provides plenty to be affected by. To me, Janet Planet is at its best when it focuses on Lacy and her outlook on life. That’s not to say Janet takes up a large chunk of this film. And by no means is that necessarily an issue on its own, as Nicholson delivers a really strong and subdued performance. Ziegler’s performance as Lacy is just one that is so deeply charming, you can’t help but want more. And so much of the film early on feels framed from her point-of-view; so any shift that occurs from there then feels a bit out-of-place. Baker’s camera wanders or focuses in on select moments as if it were the eyes of a child. When Lacy is in the car with Janet and then-boyfriend Wayne (Will Patton), we notice the backs of their ears and beard stubble via off-center, yet acutely focused, close-up shots. At its best, Janet Planet sees Baker innately capturing fragments of time with an undeniable charm. They are all moments that feel rich with memory and a hope to understand the past. And one sequence in particular captures how moments in time can be mined for resonance, even years later. 

During one segment of the film, Lacy and Janet find themselves with a house guest. Regina, an old friend of Janet, is staying with them. They have not seen each other in a few years, but that seems irrelevant to Janet. At some point or another, these two had a connection. And Janet seems like the type to never harbor ill will. As the two are speaking candidly late one night, Regina finds herself detailing a story about her and her father. And it’s a moment that, while resembling the very core idea of the legendary Mad Men meme, is a genuinely effective observation on the moments in life that make us who we are. More importantly, it highlights how those moments in time are just that to some: moments. A completely forgotten conversation that cannot possibly be comprehended in retrospect.

Yet it has irrevocably changed the path of an individual. It’s quietly devastating, as some of us, including Janet, may never know those moments which affected us deeply but have also been forgotten. Further, have we forgotten a moment that has done the same to somebody else? Janet Planet, at its very core, feels as if we all have, and will likely continue to do so throughout life. We can hold onto as much as we like in this life but, sooner or later, we either drop it, or simply pass the weight onto the next person.

More than anything, it feels as if Baker’s script is grappling with some rather lofty ideas of the varying bonds and relationships formed in life. When channeled through the lens of a coming-of-age story, it makes for a viewing both charming and intriguing. As stated, the sentiments are felt consistently throughout Janet Planet, even if the overall focus feels spread a bit too thin. One can’t help but think of a particularly striking image from the film when reflecting on its overall ideas. Unexpectedly, artwork in Janet’s home begins being removed off of a wall. One New Yorker cover in particular is unceremoniously removed from the tape holding it up, leaving a chunk of the cover left behind. Lacy sees this piece of tape and small fragment of what once filled space, and it’s a beautiful testament to what Baker is conveying with this debut film. Though her career thus far has spanned countless award-winning plays, Baker’s natural visual storytelling is perhaps most exciting to witness. That scrap held up by tape may resemble a memory, only partially viewable. Our memory will fill in the blanks as best as possible, but for the most part, it is merely lost to time. Whether that’s for better or for worse is up to the viewer, and Lacy, and Janet, to decide in the end.

Grade: B-

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