Janet Planet: Annie Baker’s warm, understated portrayal of a mother-daughter relationship

Pulitzer-winning playwright Annie Baker’s debut favours emotional veracity over grand spectacle with a quiet summer tale about a single mother and her young daughter just getting by in 1990s rural Massachusetts.

Julianne Nicholson and Zoe Ziegler as Janet and Lacy in Janet Planet (2024)
  • Reviewed from the 2024 Berlin International Film Festival

Debut screenwriter-director Annie Baker’s Janet Planet is a careful, mostly quiet late-summer tale that’s rich in character and nuance, set in 1991. There’s no notable action, beyond the occasionally stormy everyday woes of single mum Janet (Julianne Nicholson) and her 11-year-old daughter Lacy (an auspicious first screen appearance from Zoe Ziegler), so the film bears an unmistakable ring of truth. Pulitzer-winning playwright Baker has been plotting a story about her rural Western Massachusetts upbringing since at least her college days – more than 20 years ago – and with Janet Planet, she’s made fitting tribute to the gently zany, hippy-leaning alternative communities of the Pioneer Valley area.

A droll pre-credit sequence establishes Lacy’s penchant for exaggeration; she threatens to kill herself if Janet doesn’t pick her up early from summer camp, having just told camp staff her would-be-stepfather Wayne (Will Patton) has died. Baker’s tripartite film is then segmented according to the different adults floating into in the daughter-mother orbit. Wayne, whose young daughter offers a brief connection with the otherwise friendless Lacy, is an almost monosyllabic presence. In his one moment of zest he yells at Lacy – justifiably, given how annoyingly she’s being while he has a migraine – and that’s pretty much it for his relationship with Janet. He later creeps around in their garden in the dead of night, with mother and daughter hiding silently in their home, suggesting Janet was correct to give him such a short shrift.

With Wayne dispatched some 45 minutes in, viewers might question where the film is going – by this point, the incessantly chirping cicadas arguably have the biggest impact. The cosy life Lacy shares with Janet is undoubtedly touched by moments of strangeness – why does an 11-year-old still sleep in her mother’s bed? Why is she so shy and seemingly afraid of other contact? But the overall feel is a touch inert – like a too-sedate Napoleon Dynamite (2004) or perhaps some ignored outtakes of Moonrise Kingdom (2012). Lacy’s moments of mischievousness, such as when she avoids the first day back at school due to being “unwell”, lend some laughs, but it takes the introduction of Sophie Okonedo as Janet’s old friend Regina in the film’s middle section to liven things up.

Janet, an acupuncturist, appears happy to let life drift by without too many worries, and Regina brings a new jolt of energy that she (and, by this point, the film) needs. Part of a local performance art group that is apparently “not a cult”, Regina falls out with group leader Avi (Elias Koteas),  moves into Janet’s and quickly makes herself at home, listening to funk in her mezzanine nook. She offers lively chat and companionship for Lacy and, ultimately, unwanted advice for her mum. Janet’s taste in men may be abysmal, but Regina misjudges whether it should be her place to say it, with her actions indicating why their friendship had become semi-estranged. If you don’t properly stay in touch with a close friend of many years standing, there’s often a character flaw or two either or both of you are unwilling to overlook and so it goes here. Regina, having grown tired of Lacy’s lengthy bathroom visits and shampoo theft, is presumably going the same way as Wayne before Avi reappears and talks her into returning to the fold. Still, Regina’s presence opens up the film, making its somewhat insular mother-daughter world more inclusive and light. 

Cinematographer Maria von Hausswolff’s work on this film is as effective as her photography on the chilly Godland (2022), though to opposite ends. Here the warmth and love between Lacy and Janet is accentuated by sunny hues and wide shots of Western Massachusetts vistas, with their spacious, airy home a welcoming theatre of kindness rather than conflict. In one amusing scene, Janet removes a tick from Lacy’s hair, and the pair end up killing it after a few failed attempts. It’s a moving representation of their tenacity as a single-parent family: facing their emotional and physical difficulties together without too much drama or the need of any outsiders. What Baker’s inaugural feature lacks in grand spectacle, it makes up for in emotional veracity and an authentic portrayal of a mother-daughter relationship.