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(Check out Chris Reed’s Janet Planet movie review, in theaters June 28 via A24. Seen it? Join the conversation with HtN on our Letterboxd Page.)

Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Annie Baker (The Flick) enters the film world with her debut feature, Janet Planet, in which she explores the mind of her 11-year-old protagonist, Lacy, as she works her slow way through a languorous summer. Lacy’s mother—the titular Janet—is the center of her universe, but maybe the time for distance has arrived. We all must grow up sometime. It’s the charm of this gentle movie that it proves as specific as it is universal in its examination of a pending coming-of-age.

The year is 1991, the place Western Massachusetts. Lacy (newcomer Zoe Ziegler) is away at camp, but not particularly happy. She sneaks out of her cabin at night to call her mother and announce that she will kill herself if she can’t come home. As it turns out, that’s an exaggeration, since the next day she discovers that she may have friends there after all. But the die is cast, and Janet (Julianne Nicholson, Dream Scenario) comes to pick her up. For the rest of the season, the two will be together.

Or not quite. The “planet” of the title is both the name of Janet’s acupuncture business and a metaphor for the way different people are pulled into orbit around Lacy’s mother, seeking companionship both romantic and platonic, enjoying the quiet warmth she exudes. Janet muses that though she doesn’t find herself particularly beautiful, it has never been hard to make men fall in love with her. Perhaps the real challenge is knowing when to be alone.

But though there are three potential partners who are briefly part of Janet’s world, the narrative is much more about the evolving relationship between parent and child. In her press notes, Baker discusses how Janet Planet is, above all, about the process of falling out of love with one’s mother. If we are lucky enough to have experienced affection and closeness with a caregiver, there is nevertheless a moment when we will start to see them as all too human and cease to blindly adore them. It is then that we begin to become our own person.

Baker leans into the leisurely pace of warm afternoons that blend the one into the other, heightening the blurred sense of pace through elliptical editing. Ziegler perfectly embodies tween angst on the cusp of something bigger, and Nicholson looks and acts as one with the surrounding verdant landscapes, her character imbued with a grounded foundation of self (even as she occasionally worries about Lacy). The rest of the ensemble—including Elias Koteas (The Baker), Sophie Okonedo (Wild Rose), and Will Patton (Minari)—are equally engaging, though their characters prove anxious in yearning for connection with the elusive Janet.

By the end, Lacy has let go of some of her own anxiety, content to look from afar and reflect on the future. One day she could even form her own planet. Until then, this lovely, bittersweet real-world fairy tale bodes well for the adult she is destined to become.

– Christopher Llewellyn Reed (@ChrisReedFilm)

A24; Janet Planet movie; Annie Baker

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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of both the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is: lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; editor at Film Festival Today; formerly the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the founders and former cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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