Gravitational Pull

Janet Planet

by Hope Madden

It’s a quietly eventful summer for 11-year-old Lacy (Zoe Ziegler, astonishing). Although writer/director Annie Baker’s languid slice of life may appear unremarkable, what she captures is a bittersweet awakening rarely caught so astutely on film.

What opens feeling touched by absurdity settles into a mood more influenced by the unique world view of an unusual child. Baker’s fascinating framing choices emphasize Lacy’s perspective—what she sees keenly and what does not command her attention.

Inside her idyllic home in rural Western Massachusetts with her mother, Janet (Julianne Nicholson, equally astonishing), Lacy is comfortable. It’s a dreamy place where she is observant, imaginative, accepted and protected. But something is knocking.

A Pulitzer-winning playwright making her feature debut behind the camera, Baker relies on silences and gestures to mark the dramatic architecture of her story and the arc of her characters. The film’s unhurried nature might make some impatient, but both Nicholson and Zeigler compel your interest.

Nicholson—as reliable an actor as you will ever find—conveys both affectionate acceptance and frustrated longing as the single mother of the precocious Lacy. But it’s newcomer Ziegler who truly impresses, carving out a unique, memorable character you hope time and society won’t change and conformity won’t touch.

Janet Planet is loosely structured around three characters who briefly occupy space with the duo—gruff boyfriend Wayne (Will Patton), friend Regina (Sophie Okonedo), and potential suitor Avi (Elias Koteas). Each is wonderful—Okonedo, in particular—contributing something lovely to this richly textured tale.

Though well established in the theater, Baker’s first foray into filmmaking feels effortlessly cinematic. She marks a specific moment in the relationship between a parent and child, a transition that often accompanies the time just this side of adolescence, still precariously clinging to childhood. Bittersweet, beautifully observed and honest, Janet Planet also marks an impressive transition for Baker from stage to screen.

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