Review: In Janet Planet, a Mother and Daughter Navigate a Shifting Gravitational Pull

In some ways, it's a wonder a film like Janet Planet, a quiet but quite lovely rumination on mother-daughter relationships, can even get made these days. Writer/director Annie Baker, in her feature filmmaking debut, delivers a character-driven, female-centric period piece (the film takes place in 1991) that doesn't have much to recommend it in a climate where films with motorized vehicles large and small are making a splash this summer.

The film's main characters, single mother Janet (Julianne Nicholson) and her 11-year-old daughter Lacy (Zoe Ziegler), are both a particular kind of prickly, and the film, focused on a single summer and a few characters who come in and out of their lives, shifting their delicate dynamic with each coming and going, doesn't feature any explosions or car chases or even any racy sex scenes. No shade to all the films with those elements going for them, but Janet Planet plays like a refreshing reminder of what's possible when a filmmaker zooms way in on the story they're hoping to tell and creates a world of their own in which to do it.

It's clear from the jump that Lacy is a handful, as in the opening scene she's calling home from summer camp to say, in tones as cool as though she were recounting what she had for dinner, that if she doesn't get picked up to go home early, she's going to kill herself. Ok, then. Cut to brief but sweet goodbyes from the counselors and her cabin mates as Janet arrives (with boyfriend Wayne, played by Will Patton) in tow, and the layers already within this pre-teen girl become evident. "I didn't think they liked me," she says with a cool wonder, "but they do."

She gets it from Janet, apparently, whose straight talk and dry delivery don't always sit well with even her closest friends. Together, the two of them are a codependent yet contentious pair. Janet doesn't want to fall asleep in the same bed when Wayne is in the other room; Lacy asks her for a piece of her to fall asleep with and Janet gives her a single hair off her head. How sentimental. They exist in each other's worlds, and certainly there are glimpses of warmth and relatability, but generally speaking, Baker's film revels in the world that Lacy creates for herself between piano lessons and bike rides to the ice cream shop before snapping back to live at the small house she shares with her mother.

The film is broken up into vignettes for each character who occupies a window of their summer: Wayne, Janet's current (but not for long) boyfriend who, despite having a daughter of his own the same age as Lacy, doesn't seem all that interested in the girl; Regina (Sophie Okonedo, Janet's friend who the two reconnect with at an outdoor performance, one of the film's most engaging scenes; and Avi, Regina's ex who spends a brief time with Janet as summer fades. While each of these characters, particularly Regina, exerts influence (intended or otherwise) over the pair, it's the relationship between Janet and Lacy that is at the heart of the film.

Nicholson, who's made quite a character actor name for herself since her time on Law & Order, channels absent '90s mother easily, apparently of the mind that by her age, Lacy probably doesn't need Janet all that much. Ziegler, meanwhile, makes her film debut with a bang, a child actor who more than rises to the occasion of working with greats like Nicholson and Okonedo. It's a credit to Baker's script and direction (and the actor's talent) that Ziegler adopts the ennui of a '90s latch-key kid so effortlessly.

In an era when there are more films available than one could ever realistically have the time to watch, I at least am grateful that options like Janet Planet exist, a film with a refreshing point of view, complicated characters and enough time spent with them to appreciate what they're going through. As my colleague Steve Prokopy would say, this debut marks a strong start for Annie Baker, and I'm excited to see where she goes from here.

Janet Planet opens in Chicago on June 27.

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Lisa Trifone