'Janet Planet' - Mother/daughter angst in Annie Baker's indie film

  • by Gregg Shapiro
  • Monday July 1, 2024
Share this Post:
Julianne Nicholson and Zoe Ziegler in 'Janet Planet' (photo: A24 Films)
Julianne Nicholson and Zoe Ziegler in 'Janet Planet' (photo: A24 Films)

For years, Julianne Nicholson has been the other Julianne (to Moore's Julianne). But with each successive performance, including in the 2021 series "Mare of Eastown," she has established her own Julianne-ness.

Nicholson plays the titular single mother character in "Janet Planet" (A24), the kind of intimate, snail's pace indie that viewers either love or hate. However, she's not really the star.

That title belongs to Zoe Ziegler (in her big screen debut) who plays Janet's precocious (and often annoying) 11-year-old daughter Lacy. How clever is Lacy? Unhappy at overnight summer camp, she calls Janet from a payphone and tells her she'll kill herself if her mother doesn't come pick her up and bring her home. Payphone, you say? Yes, "Janet Planet" is set in the early 1990s.

Zoe Ziegler and Julianne Nicholson in 'Janet Planet' (photo: A24 Films)  

Janet, a licensed acupuncturist who favors long, diaphanous skirts, free-trade jewelry, drinking white wine, and asking her kid for advice, is involved with Wayne (an unrecognizable Will Patton). Wayne suffers from migraines and has a daughter named Sequoia who is around Lacy's age. The possibility of a friendship between the girls, after a fun day at the mall, is stunted when Janet ends things with Wayne.

We get a taste of Western Massachusetts woo-woo (no offense intended) when Janet and Lacy attend a "service/performance" in the woods, featuring Janet's friend Regina (Sophie Okonedo), who is in a relationship with Avi (Elias Koteas).

Avi, a charismatic cult-leader-like man, runs the farm/commune where the performers live. The first takeaway from the experience is that Regina wants to end her relationship with Avi and move into Janet's house. The second is that Lacy got a tick which Janet removes with a tweezer before they set it on fire.

In the scenes with Janet, Regina, and Lacy, we discover that Lacy's mom isn't the only one who says inappropriate things in front of children. Regina's stay at Janet's, following an evening of drug-induced honesty, is as short-lived as Wayne's. However, it does establish Janet's pattern of attracting the wrong people in her life.

Shortly after it was beginning to feel strange that, for a movie set in Western Mass., there was a dearth of queer people, at the hour and 10-minute mark, Lacy asks Janet if she'd be disappointed if she dated a girl. Bingo! Janet's response is alternating motherly and off-putting, but ultimately accepting of her daughter.

Writer/director Annie Baker, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, lets her theater background show in the way that "Janet Planet" is separated into named acts. For a feature debut, especially one with such a talented cast, "Janet Planet" could have easily spun out of orbit. It's to Baker's credit that the planets aligned. Rating: B-


Never miss a story! Keep up to date on the latest news, arts, politics, entertainment, and nightlife.
Sign up for the Bay Area Reporter's free weekday email newsletter. You'll receive our newsletters and special offers from our community partners.

Support California's largest LGBTQ newsroom. Your one-time, monthly, or annual contribution advocates for LGBTQ communities. Amplify a trusted voice providing news, information, and cultural coverage to all members of our community, regardless of their ability to pay -- Donate today!