Janet Planet film poster and movie review

Movie Reviews

Janet Planet

Reviewed by:
Luke Bonanno on June 25, 2024

Theatrical Release:
June 21, 2024

Award-winning playwright Annie Baker makes a slow but absorbing film debut.

Running Time113 min

RatingPG-13

Running Time 113 min

RatingPG-13

Annie Baker

Annie Baker

Julianne Nicholson (Janet), Zoe Ziegler (Lacy), Elias Koteas (Avi), Will Patton (Wayne), Mary Shultz (Davina), Edie Moon Kearns (Sequoia), Sophie Okonedo (Regina)


Janet Planet (2024)

by Luke Bonanno

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Annie Baker makes a slow but absorbing film debut as the writer-director of Janet Planet.

Set during the summer and fall of 1991, the film opens with the shy, bespectacled 11-year-old Lacy (Zoe Ziegler) calling home threatening to kill herself if her mother Janet (Julianne Nicholson) doesn’t pick her up from her sleepaway camp. It’s not a serious threat but Mom still shows up in the morning to bring the girl back to their forest paradise in rural Massachusetts.

Annie baker's a24 drama "janet planet" focuses on a mother (julianne nicholson) and daughter (zoe ziegler) spending the summer of 1991 in western massachusetts.

Lacy has immediate regrets about leaving camp when she realizes she’ll have to endure Mom’s boyfriend, the eerily quiet and withdrawn Wayne (Will Patton). Lacy gets to meet Wayne’s comparably aged daughter and the two have great fun running through the shopping mall together. But Wayne’s time with Janet is drawing to a close and with it so is the first third of the film.

The second relationship explored sees chiropractor Janet reconnecting with her old acquaintance, Regina (Sophie Okonedo), whom the mother and daughter catch as part of a culty farm/puppet theatre troupe’s elaborate sunset performance. Regina moves in with the two, but minor carefree summer adventures soon give way to some tensions.

The film’s final third lets Janet begin seeing Regina’s sort of ex, the farm theatre group director Avi (Elias Koteas). With Avi comes poetry and religious/philosophical pontificating, but their relationship ends as the summer does.

Janet Planet is as relaxed in pace as any film you’ll see this year. The entirety of a frozen blintz’s time in the microwave is shown. The full “Clarissa Explains It All” theme song plays unseen to mild interest. Baker seems to relish moments like these where although it seems little is happening there is much going on under the surface. The film will strike some as calming and comforting, especially those who can relate to an artsy early ’90s summer break of bicycle rides and piano lessons. Others may find the deliberate pacing excruciating, growing tired of the pregnant pauses and extended silences. I fell into the former class, appreciating how relatable, wise, authentic, and often funny this film was despite its unusual devotion to understatement.

Janet (julianne nicholson) checks in on lacy (zoe ziegler) as the girl practices playing piano on a portable keyboard.

Baker fills the five principal roles with a quintet of talented actors and each gives their part palpable weight and resonance. Young newcomer Ziegler gets the most screentime and she shines brightly, a child star with none of the affectations and scripted precociousness that we normally get from young actors. It’s improbable Ziegler ever gets another opportunity as rich as this, but she makes the most of it, inviting comparisons to other should-be star-making awkward adolescent turns like Heather Matarazzo in Welcome to the Dollhouse and Elsie Fisher in Eighth Grade. Janet Planet does not quite reach the heights of those landmark coming-of-age girl tales, but it gives us much to consider and admire with its heartfelt and nostalgic slice of life presentation.

As for the four adults, they’ve all been around virtually forever; Patton and Koteas since the early ’80s, Nicholson and Okonedo since the ’90s. But despite Okonedo’s 2005 Oscar nomination, Nicholson’s 2022 Emmy win, Koteas’ stint as Casey Jones, and Patton’s handful of blockbusters, none of them are exactly household names. All four performers seize the rare opportunity to truly sink their teeth into characters of substance and each in turn commands the screen, whether for a few minutes, or in Nicholson’s case, here and there throughout.

These are the joys of an A24 movie with no significant commercial expectations or prospects. On IMDb, favorable critics reviews will outnumber mixed public reviews for Baker’s unmistakably autobiographical debut for some time. When you consider the alternative, that this intelligent and earnest drama either would not exist or would not get a proper theatrical release, you appreciate the hip distributor’s reach and its commitment to mature, personal storytelling. There may not be the same sense of obligation for an A24 cineaste to plop down $13.49 (or quite a bit more in major cities) to see this in theaters that a Netflix browser will have to at least have the streamer’s newest mindless action flick running while they play on their phone. But the world is enriched much more by the A24 model and so too would be any evening in which you choose to give this film two hours of your summer.

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