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Janet Planet

When the young, melancholic Lacy (Zoe Ziegler) begs her mother Janet (Julianne Nicholson) to pick her up from summer camp early, it feels urgent. “I’m going to kill myself,” she says. “I said I’m going to kill myself if you don’t come get me.” Janet arrives the next morning, but Lacy’s tune has already changed: “I thought nobody liked me, but I was wrong.” Her mother responds flatly: “This is a bad pattern.” 

It’s a laugh line that quickly introduces us to the dynamic of their relationship: a daughter clinging to her mother, unaware of how to be without her while the mother wonders about her parenting skills. Should a daughter still be holding on to her mother so tightly? Is it the mother’s job to create more distance? Lacy watches Janet constantly, her eyes focused behind her wire-framed glasses. Even at night, she struggles to sleep without her lying next to her. That night, when Janet tries to leave the bed, Lacy asks for a piece of her. Janet pulls out a strand of hair and hands it to her daughter, who gazes at it lovingly. 

Annie Baker’s directorial debut "Janet Planet" is as spare and contemplative as her writing for the stage. The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright paints a lush portrait of a mother and daughter living in rural Massachusetts in 1991, walking steadily through grass and tall trees, carving out a quiet life for themselves. Even the title “Janet Planet” emphasizes the way Lacy’s world is crafted in Janet’s image, as her life is the only model for love, friendship, and womanhood she’s ever known. 

Janet works from home as an acupuncturist, a vocation that allows her to soothe her boyfriend Wayne (Will Patton), a troubled older man of few words. Their relationship seems to depend on Janet being a nurturing presence in his life, pushing Lacy to compete with him for her mother’s time and affection. Through dialogue, we learn that Janet has a habit of dating men who aren’t right for her, but it’s unclear to Lacy why this is the case. At first, we see Janet as her daughter sees her, in small windows of time, filtered by her 11-year-old impressions. She, Wayne, and Lacy function like a love triangle with Janet in the middle trying to keep the peace. But much of the conflict is slight enough to go undetected by a stranger. Everything about their lives together is quiet, but the silence masks loud emotional uncertainty.

"Janet Planet" follows a few months in the lives of Lacy and her mother, with people drifting in and out of Janet’s orbit. In the small pockets of time when Lacy isn’t with Janet, she busies herself with piano lessons and playing with her little stage of small figurines. Lacy doesn’t have any friends, a fact that is “a complete mystery” to her. But from the outside, the answer seems clear–she’s too in love with her mother to let anyone else in. While there are moments of bonding with other kids–most notably her time with Wayne’s daughter Sequoia–Lacy prefers the company of her mother and other adults who encourage her precocious nature. 

In the film’s most dynamic scene, Janet and Lacy watch a performance in the woods with elaborate costumes and poetic dialogue. Janet has broken up with Wayne and is a free agent once again. With the full beauty of their surroundings on display, Janet and Lacy are temporarily transported from their quiet, often frustrating life, to a place that is magical and full of possibility. This moment reveals the pattern of their lives–Janet goes from lover to lover while Lacy watches, with small interludes of alone time between the two where they cling together and heal.

Films about single mothers and their children are plentiful, but what sets "Janet Planet" apart is the way it portrays what it’s like being a young girl and watching your mother live with equal curiosity and empathy. In one of the film’s best scenes, Janet and her friend Regina (Sophie Okonedo) are both high, monologuing about their pasts from childhood to young adulthood. Regina speaks of her troubled upbringing and an anonymous letter sent to her father that changed her life trajectory. Janet speaks of her “Holocaust survivor father and angry mother” and the dove they got her as a child after she begged for a pet. 

It’s a funny and warm moment of two friends reconnecting, but then the conversation takes a turn. Janet starts talking about her choices and how she feels judged by others and herself for all her mistakes. Regina responds by telling her friend not to delude herself or rationalize the bad choices she’s made in romance and life. Once the conflict ends, it’s revealed that Lacy has been sitting there the whole time, quietly listening to this adult conversation that indirectly concerns her. She is the product of Janet’s choices, after all. She is her mother’s legacy and she knows it, despite her young age.

Nicholson and Ziegler are an achingly perfect pair onscreen, both giving performances full of joy, sadness, introspection, and empathy. Our time with them as an audience feels precious. Janet Planet establishes the kind of realistic closeness between women and girls that has been mostly relegated to television in recent years. It feels like we spend a whole season with this little family and yet it still doesn’t seem like nearly enough time. 

The world Baker creates for her characters is so rich, warm, and beautiful. By the time character actor Elias Koteas arrives as Avi (another potential lover for Janet), the film is already winding down toward its poetic conclusion. It’s bittersweet to see our time with Janet and Lacy to end. But thankfully, we can always visit Janet Planet again.

Jourdain Searles

Jourdain Searles is a freelance film and culture writer with bylines in The Hollywood Reporter, New York Magazine, Sight & Sound, Vanity Fair, The New York Times, and Indiewire, among many other publications.

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Film Credits

Janet Planet movie poster

Janet Planet (2024)

113 minutes


Julianne Nicholson as Janet

Zoe Ziegler as Lacy

Sophie Okonedo as Regina

Elias Koteas as Avi

Will Patton as Wayne



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