It’s almost cosmic, the way kids start out as nothing more than a twinkle in their mother’s eye. Then they’re born into heavenly little bodies, orbiting the adults who made them like tiny moons, until such time that they overcome their parents’ gravitational pull. So it is with “Janet Planet,” one of those intensely personal portraits of childhood that we’ve come to expect — and appreciate — from A24, the indie studio behind “Moonlight” and “Lady Bird” and “Aftersun” and “Eighth Grade” (the example this one most resembles). The list goes on.
Seriously, as many as 24 different A24 movies could fit this category — and now we get playwright Annie Baker’s micro-normous take: a small but incredibly specific movie that feels every bit as attentively crafted and evocative as those earlier titles, while remaining wholly unique and distinct from them. It’s striking proof of an original sensibility. Baker has made an honest, endearing and occasionally “owie” portrait of how an 11-year-old girl’s clingy relationship to her single mom evolves over the course of the summer between fifth and sixth grades. Watching it feels eerily akin to running one’s fingers along a scar sustained in childhood and being magically projected back to the moment that injury was sustained.
Like “Past Lives” director Celine Song, Baker hails from the theater world, where she won a Pulitzer for her three-hour play “The Flick” a decade ago — 16 scenes in which three bored employees sweep popcorn and shoot the breeze in an empty movie theater. Despite its setting, the play could hardly be less cinematic, which inevitably prompts the question of how she’ll adapt to the new medium. Turns out, the way a first-timer’s naive attempt at using a pottery wheel might go: imperfect but lovely, reflecting its own wonky sense of originality. The film is oddly structured and a bit flat (there’s no score, and the camera rarely budges), and yet it’s completely devoid of cliché, owing largely to the level of detail Baker brings to her characters.
Janet, the mother in question, is played by Julianne Nicholson, a great, earthy actress who doesn’t have to bend far to embody a woman who might have been labeled a hippie two decades earlier. But it’s 1991, and Janet is an acupuncturist with a practice based out of her Western Massachusetts home: a great big cabin, surrounded by trees, with monster windows and vaulted ceilings that must have felt gigantic to a girl like Lacy (Zoe Ziegler), the film’s main character and the filter through which it’s being imagined/remembered.
The movie opens at summer camp, though it takes a moment for the audience to get oriented as Lacy climbs out of her bunk, crosses a field where the crickets are in full symphony and reaches a payphone. “I’m going to kill myself if you don’t come get me,” she says in what surely ranks among the great opening lines of all time. Lacy can sound dramatic, but if you think about it, she’s been on this earth for 11 years, and in that time, she’s discovered the buttons to push to get what she wants from her mom. And in this moment, she wants to go home. Hilariously, as soon as she announces her plans to leave (by lying about an accident involving her nonexistent dad) she realizes that her sympathetic fellow campers like her a lot more than she imagined. Childhood is full of such discoveries, as we trial-and-error our way through life, frequently confused about what we really want.
Lacy doesn’t make friends easily. But she adores her mom. The instant they’re reunited, she starts trying to elbow out Janet’s boyfriend, Wayne (Will Patton). She wants Mom all to herself — not in a conniving horror-movie way, but such that a great many viewers will find familiar. Lying in bed beside Janet at night, Lacy asks her for “a piece of you,” settling for a strand of hair, which she studies in the dark. “Janet Planet” isn’t realistic per se (certain elements have been either embellished or rendered surreal in the telling), but it’s grounded in a genuine sense of human psychology.
The movie is broken into three segments, each focused on a different adult who bends the monopoly Lacy has on her mother into a kind of love triangle. First there’s Wayne, then an old friend named Regina (Sophie Okonedo) whom Janet rediscovers at a cult-like art colony, and finally Avi (Elias Koteas), the intense leader of that community. Using big on-screen labels, Baker signals as these people enter and exit Lacy’s life — rivals for Janet’s attention — in a pattern that comes to resemble the regional contra dance depicted in the final scene.
“Janet Planet” benefits from a terrific script in which characters put into words things that real humans struggle to articulate, like Janet’s well-considered response to Lacy’s question, “Would you be disappointed if one day I dated a girl?” But it’s Nicholson and newcomer Ziegler — a slightly birdlike redhead with spectacles and a slight overbite — who render these scenes so indelible. “We don’t go on enough adventures,” Lacy complains. The moments Baker imagines are too small to qualify as such, from regular piano lessons to a memorable visit to the local mall, but they add up to something bigger. In her stage work, Baker has proven a master at extracting meaning from the mundane. “Janet Planet” can feel a little slender at times, possibly even too lean to sustain some people’s interest, but it’s been designed such that audiences can read as much into as they bring to the experience.