Review: Janet Planet

From Swiss Formula shampoo to Baby-Sitters Club books, Janet Planet perfectly captures what it was like to be a girl in the early ‘90s. However, playwright Annie Baker’s debut as a film director and screenwriter isn’t just an exercise in nostalgia. This quietly funny drama also feels emotionally authentic in its story about the connection between a single mother and her daughter, a kid on the cusp of being a teenager who is surrounded by adults. 

With her Pulitzer Prize-winning play The Flick, Baker demonstrated a keen appreciation for movies as a medium, and Janet Planet doesn’t simply feel like a stage drama brought to the screen. As a filmmaker, she often lets dialogue between her actors breathe, using minimal cuts in those scenes and allowing the performances to shine, which is a solid fit for a film that is so character driven and filled with such strong work from its cast. The editing becomes more prominent in transitional and establishing moments, and there’s a memorable scene where she uses framing to comic effect when the audience might assume that a character isn’t present, but she is instead only out of our sight.

Janet Planet is largely set over a summer in western Massachusetts, focusing on the lives of Janet (Julianne Nicholson), a hippie acupuncturist, and Lacy (Zoe Ziegler), her unconventional daughter who is still very much a kid. Since it is just the two of them, they have built their own little world in a wood-paneled home in the woods, but occasionally others enter their orbit, including Janet’s boyfriend Wayne (Will Patton), her old friend Regina (Sophie Okonedo), and Avi (Elias Koteas), a charismatic man from a nearby commune. Baker structures the film in roughly three acts, shifting between those three people and how the close attachment between Janet and Lacy accommodates a third person over the course of a few months. 

Baker’s freshman film is tender but not overly twee in its depiction of this mother-daughter relationship. Janet Planet presents a clear-eyed look at these characters, acknowledging their flaws and idiosyncrasies as much as their strengths. It is alternately sweet and sharp; Baker clearly cares about these people, but she isn’t afraid to poke a little fun at them. I may have cackled at a “Free Tibet” bumper sticker, which communicates so much about a character and a time. 

With touches like that, Janet Planet is marvelously detailed. It isn’t just about a tween in the early ‘90s; it’s specifically from the perspective of an awkward girl growing up in a very crunchy home in western Mass who reads Jean M. Auel for the juicy bits and learns piano from the sweet old woman down the street who gives her a single Lindt truffle at the end of her lesson. Baker and production designer Teresa Mastropierro recreate the era with a comforting precision: the house feels appropriately lived-in, from Lacy’s bookshelf-turned-dollhouse filled with a motley crew of figurines to the door propped open to let the breeze into the non-air-conditioned interiors. For viewers who experienced that time, there’s a sense of wonder at how everything looks just as it did then, perfectly weathered and real. 

Yet the most amazing find might be newcomer Ziegler as the young Lacy. Baker doesn’t feel the need to make her an overly cute kid; she lets her be occasionally, endearingly annoying in a way that feels true to life. Even those moments come from a point of curiosity or insecurity rather than meanness. Over the course of its nearly two-hour runtime, Janet Planet and Ziegler build the audience’s affection for the character, and by the end, I would’ve died for her. She feels like such a whole person that I can’t help but wonder where adult Lacy is in 2024. Wherever it is, I hope she’s happy. 

“Janet Planet” is out Friday in New York; it opens nationwide on June 28.

Kimber Myers is a freelance film and TV critic for 'The Los Angeles Times' and other outlets. Her day job is at a tech company in their content studio, and she has also worked at several entertainment-focused startups, building media partnerships, developing content marketing strategies, and arguing for consistent use of the serial comma in push notification copy.

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