This article appeared in the June 21, 2024 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writingSign up for the Letter here.

Janet Planet (Annie Baker, 2023)

For a certain sort of child, coming of age can be a quiet and solitary process: an evolution taking place beyond language, with the most significant upheavals going largely unspoken. Kids’ brains are like sponges, we’re told, accruing loose symbolic associations and unaccountably vivid sense memories from even the most mundane encounters. A child watches and listens, perceiving the comings and goings of adult life with some mix of longing, curiosity, and trepidation, perhaps lacking the words to describe the effect of her observations. Among the narrative arts, sound cinema is perhaps the most robustly equipped to recreate the subjective thrill of encountering the world as a young person, and distilling meaning from the raw material of the senses.

Janet Planet, the revelatory filmmaking debut from acclaimed American playwright Annie Baker, conjures the perspective of one such child with astonishing sensitivity and insight. The year is 1991. We meet Lacy (newcomer Zoe Ziegler), the only daughter of a single mother (Julianne Nicholson, incandescent), during the summer between fifth and sixth grades. Often seen from an adult’s-eye view, with the camera’s line of sight grazing the top of her head, Lacy mostly watches and listens to the grown-ups around her, occasionally interjecting with jagged remarks of surprising darkness and frankness. Calling home from sleepaway camp in the film’s first scene, she emphatically declares to her mother, Janet: “I’m gonna kill myself if you don’t come get me.” Her delivery is plaintive yet matter-of-fact, pronouncing each word with unforced, unhurried intensity.

Janet is a questing soul: self-possessed but plagued by doubts, perpetually hungry for enlightenment, the sort of parent to whom it would never occur to address her child in a juvenile register. Conversations between the film’s adult characters include glancing allusions to Janet’s bohemian past, and an inheritance that empowered her to own a home and become a licensed acupuncturist. The unfinished farmhouse that she shares with Lacy, tucked cozily in the lush greenery of western Massachusetts, is replete with signifiers of a certain strain of free-spirited, late-20th-century East Coast liberalism. Janet’s vaguely antiestablishment youth looms large and persists in the form of lingering insecurities. Now finding herself in early middle age, she hasn’t stopped searching—for fulfillment, for a sense of self, for assurance that she’s made “good” decisions.

Title cards announce the film’s three acts, each named for one of several friends and lovers whom we observe moving in and out of Janet’s orbit over the course of the summer: Wayne (Will Patton), a gruffly laconic older boyfriend with a young daughter of his own; Regina (Sophie Okonedo), a long-lost friend to whom Janet spontaneously offers a place to stay when they’re reunited unexpectedly; and Avi (Elias Koteas), the charismatic leader of a cultish experimental performance collective that Regina is attempting to quit. Meanwhile, Lacy—steadfast and guileless, insistently tracing her mother’s movements with her wide-eyed gaze—is the one constant, the moon to Janet’s planet, content to remain in thrall to her mother’s gravitational pull. Across blissful transitional interludes that alternate with the titled chapters, the mother-daughter pair form a self-sufficient partnership, a closed system, happily passing their time alone together until another interloper inevitably intrudes on their tranquil, shared universe. During one such sequence, Janet attends a plein-air theatrical extravaganza mounted by Avi’s troupe with Lacy in tow. The scene is sneaky in its poignancy: it’s the only one in which we see Janet and Lacy sharing a single perspective, huddled together in the grass, marveling at the spectacle before them.

Widely acclaimed for her work as a playwright—her 2013 play The Flick, set entirely in the auditorium of a suburban movie theater, received the Pulitzer Prize—Baker is remarkably assured in the role of director, her film language seeming to emerge fully developed from her dramatic writing (which has been provocatively described by The New Yorker as “anti-theatrical”). The film’s formal precision is most virtuosically on display in the treatment of space within and outside the frame, mirroring Lacy’s gentle manipulations of the mismatched figurines that populate her curtain-shrouded dollhouse. Stark, exterior wide shots, in which human figures risk being swallowed up by landscapes, alternate with proscenium-like interior tableaux, where a mise en scène of miraculous naturalism is animated by bodies performing minutely composed choreographies. There’s an intuitive musicality to the rhythms of framing and editing, too, so that every close-up feels wholly earned, endowing isolated facial expressions with heightened urgency.

Baker’s plays feature rigorous taxonomies of pauses and silences, specifying the discrete durations meant to elapse between lines of dialogue—during which the deceptively workaday phrases uttered by her characters is afforded the space to breathe, to resonate and expand. Baker’s film also resides in these interstices, inviting the viewer to experience the passage of time in company with her characters. She locates poetry in the cumulative effect of observing a young girl walking wordlessly along the edge of a rural thoroughfare, of listening closely to the gravel crunching beneath her feet, and of humming along to the oscillating fans that grace every interior—an unobtrusive yet insistent reminder of the sweltering stickiness of a New England summer, and of the inexorable churn of time.

Madeline Whittle is the assistant programmer for Film at Lincoln Center, and co-programmer of New York Film Festival Talks. Her writing and translation work have appeared in Film CommentThe Brooklyn Rail, and Film Education Journal.