“Hi, I’m gonna kill myself,” an 11-year-old girl proclaims to her mom over a pay phone in what is clearly an attention-getting gesture. Alarming as this may sound, it’s just part of the oddly arresting dynamics of Janet Planet, the distinctive first produced screenplay by Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Annie Baker, making her cinematic directorial debut. This is an off-beat film to say the least, one rippling with modestly turbulent undercurrents that are presented in such a way that make parent-offspring relations at least as amusing as they are serious. Beyond that, there is an unusual dramatic approach at play that partly turns its back on normal verbal interchange, one that embraces out-of-the-blue remarks and sidelong comments at the partial expense of conventional exposition and character development. The result is both disarming and odd, a film both lovely for its observational aptitude and at times mildly annoying in its smarty-pants conversational cleverness. Whatever else you can say, it’s an absolute original.
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Given the author’s clear enthusiasm for the cinema, it’s somewhat surprising that it’s taken her so long to finally write a script directly for the screen. Baker was showered with awards a decade ago for her play The Flick, which was about three female employees at a movie theater. The show won the Obie in the wake of its Off Broadway premiere at New York’s Playwrights Horizon in 2013 and the following year copped the Pulitzer for drama when it was produced in Chicago by the Steppenwolf Theater Company.
Surprisingly, not all that many playwrights have endeavored to direct film versions of their own plays and when they do, the results are variable. Among the most notable are Harold Pinter, Kenneth Lonergan, Martin McDonagh, Neil LaBute, Mike Leigh, David Mamet and John Patrick Shanley.
In taking the reins here, Baker has fashioned a distinctive and unusual tone for her work; the actors work in a realistic vein even as they are called upon to do and say some very fanciful things. At the same time, odd and rare moments occasionally come out of nowhere, private privileged occasions the camera witnesses that are genuinely disarming.
Baker has called this a tale about “falling out of love with your mother.” You may or may not want to watch the story through that prism, but little Lacy (Zoe Ziegler) is already seriously testing her mother Janet (Julianne Nicholson). Immediately, one is reminded of what a wonderful actress Nicholson is and it’s a pleasure to watch her in every scene she’s in, even if her character is being given a strenuous hard time by her bright kid. Although the story could easily be set at any time in any place, it’s given a welcome specificity by being set in a rural 1991 New England that is evidently occupied almost exclusively by middle-aged hippies.
In an informal way, the film is divided into three recognizable sections. The first centers on Wayne (Will Patton), a Vietnam vet who is rather unpleasant and pretty clearly on the way out as Janet’s intimate. In line for taking a room at Janet’s place is Regina (Sophie Okonedo), who’s trying to make a new start in life. The third principal is Avi (Elias Koteas), Regina’s ex, who runs the local theater group.
It’s clearly a transitional summer for everyone, but nothing is forced dramatically. To the contrary, one is more than content to observe the jostling, ever-moving parts of the dramatic dynamics, which are expressed in all manner of ways, from the eruptive to the understated. No matter the tone or the intent of the scenes, Baker’s dialogue is invariably telling and sharp, the kind that is unusual enough to make you lean into it to make sure you’re taking in everything.
This a small, intimate film with many moments that register in one way or another thanks to the ever-percolating dialogue and a cast led by the wonderful Nicholson, who one hopes to see more often and prominently onscreen in time to come. The positive Telluride Film Festival reaction to Janet Planet overall should also encourage Baker to do more film writing, for which she clearly has a keen feel.
Title: Janet Planet
Festival: Telluride Film Festival
Director-screenwriter: Annie Baker
Cast: Zoe Ziegler, Julianne Nicholson, Will Patton, Sophie Okonedo, Elias Koteas
Running time: 1 hr 53 min
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