Julianne Nicholson and Zoe Ziegler take in a theater performance and a great deal else in Janet Planet. Courtesy A24 Films

I seem to lack the proper appreciation for these lyrical, contemplative films about girls growing up with distant parents. You may remember that I didn’t include Charlotte Wells’ Aftersun in my list of 2022’s best movies, nor did I include Raven Jackson’s All Dirt Roads Taste of Salt among last year’s best movies. It looks like Annie Baker’s Janet Planet (which opens this week) is headed for the same fate this year. These movies seem to wash over me without quite crystallizing into something that I can get a grip on, while my fellow film critics go bananas over them. Antoneta Alamat Kusijanović’s Murina and Céline Sciamma’s Petite Maman aren’t so very different from those, and somehow they popped the red button in my brain that screams at me, “That’s a freaking great movie!” Not these, though.

Instead of writing off these movies as failures, I feel like I’m failing these films. In fact, I probably am failing these films, judging by the great reviews they receive from other quarters. These movies challenge me to adopt a new way of seeing and feeling, and I seem unable to rise to it. Why is that? True, I’ve never been a 10-year-old girl or a single parent raising one, but then I’ve never been a soldier or an astronaut, either, and I have no trouble vibing with great movies about them. Am I so desensitized that I need car chases or laugh-out-loud jokes or some bombshell of a dramatic payoff to keep me in a film? Maybe it’s good that I’m forced to ask these questions of myself. It would be pretty terrible if I ever actually figured out everything about film. Still, that doesn’t lessen my frustration at realizing that, for me, Janet Planet is a collection of very pleasant vibes that never reach the quiet revelation that it’s aiming for. This movie is in my blind spot, and I don’t like that.

The film takes place in the summer of 1991, when 11-year-old Lacy (Zoe Ziegler) grows up in Western Massachusetts as the daughter of single mother Janet (Julianne Nicholson), a licensed acupuncturist whose business is called Janet Planet. The film is structured around three people whom Janet encounters over the summer: a boyfriend named Wayne (Will Patton), a friend from her teen years named Regina (Sophie Okonedo), and a New Age guru (Elias Koteas) whom Janet pegs as a cult leader but still finds herself drawn to.


The three-part structure invites comparisons to a three-act stage play, and indeed Baker — a UT professor, by the way — is a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright working on her first film. (She will likely make my year-end list of best debut filmmakers.) Yet stagey is the last thing this movie feels, even when it’s taking in an outdoor theater performance. Baker isn’t one for big visual flourishes, and heaven knows I do like my big visual flourishes, but that would be out of place in such a quiet and small-scale film. When Lacy, who has trouble making friends, hits it off with Wayne’s daughter who is her age (Edie Moon Kearns), Baker makes it feel natural as her camera follows the girls while they run through a shopping mall.

The acting here is excellent, particularly from the two leads. Nicholson is softly radiant as a mother who admits, “I’ve always known that I can make any man fall in love with me if I really try, and I think it’s ruined my life.” Yet it’s bespectacled, flame-haired Ziegler who will draw your attention as one of those serious kids who’s so alert to everything that she unnerves the adults around her. The movie’s final shot goes in tight on her face as she observes while her mother takes part in a contra dance, and I don’t think I’ll ever forget her gaze.

For all that, I still have so much trouble gaining any purchase on Janet Planet. Counting out its very real qualities only throws my own shortcomings into higher relief. If you see this film and find it to be a gem that you cherish for the rest of your days, I’ll be happy for you. If you come out of it feeling like me, well, let’s have a beer together and talk it out.


Janet Planet
Starring Zoe Ziegler and Julianne Nicholson. Written and directed by Annie Baker. Rated R.