HomeReviewsJanet Planet

Janet Planet

Two wonderful performances light up this soothing coming-of-age debut.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

While it’s natural for media genres to ebb and flow in popularity over the years, I’ve always loved how the “coming of age” story has stayed relevant for every generation. Whether discussing the timeless aspects of growing up—like difficulties of puberty and growing pains with parents—or the experiences unique to a specific generation, it’s easy to be engrossed in the classic story of a child starting to realize that the world around them isn’t what they expected at 11 years old.

It’s hard not to make a coming-of-age story empathetic; it becomes more difficult, however, when it comes to the creativity and execution surrounding that narrative. If the formula is such a classic, how do you spice it up enough to make it feel fresh?

In this case, Janet Planet is the answer.

Written and directed by playwright Annie Baker, the film follows Lacy (Zoe Ziegler), a strange little girl who spends the summer of 1991 with her mother Janet (Julianne Nicholson). Lacy is immensely attached to her mother, feeling a tad defensive as three strangers come and go throughout the summer. As these people begin to peel away Janet’s layers, Lacey starts to see her mother more as a person—one with with fears, regrets, and a vulnerability that Lacy can’t fully comprehend.

Questions begin to sink into her mind: Is it normal to grow apart from my mom? Are these strangers good for my mom in the long run? If Mom is unhappy, how can I be happy? 

Janet Planet shines most obviously when it comes to the phenomenal chemistry between Ziegler and Nicholson. From her very first scene, Ziegler gives Lacy a lovable awkwardness that bleeds into the character’s humor, inquisitive questions, brutal honesty, and silent moments that capture the rate at which her mind is working at all times. There’s an authenticity to Ziegler’s performance that is captivating out of the gate, maintaining that momentum as Janet enters the story and begins talking to Lacy like an adult. Watching Lacy’s openness with her mother as opposed to her shielded curiosity towards her mother’s friends leads the straightforward narrative to have the sufficient energy to keep moving forward so long as Lacy pops up onscreen. In her feature film debut, Ziegler makes for a delightful lead who perfectly captures the appeal of coming-of-age stories like this one.

On the flipside, Janet Planet pulls double-duty by also giving Janet a worthy narrative that explores love, time lost, and the importance of finding herself in a moment filled with self-doubt. While coming-of-age stories traditionally focus on children or young adults learning about growing up, the choice to focus on an adult finding themselves during a mid-life crisis definitely constitutes a proper use of the formula as well.

Seen in projects such as Mare of Easttown and last year’s Dream Scenario, Nicholson wonderfully captures the loving parental figure that can’t help but be human every once in a while. It gives the film an easy excuse for at least two viewings: one as a pseudo-nostalgic look at childhood summers, and one as a cathartic journey of a woman re-learning what it means to be herself. While I believe Ziegler holds her own in solo scenes, it’s no surprise that the best scenes in the movie are when Nicholson and Ziegler are bouncing off each other with a healthy balance of playfulness and vulnerability. 

If that wasn’t enough, the cinematography by Maria von Hausswolff gives Janet Planet a legitimately unique visual angle that deepens the connection with every scene. Since Lacy is a child, the film frequently shoots low enough to imitate Lacey’s point-of-view, mixing up the staging of certain scenes to really emphasize just how locked-in Lacy is with her mother and her surroundings—even when it might benefit her not to be.

The film already has an earthy, tactile visual style that captures the feeling of a nostalgic summer without the need to explicitly remind the audience that the film takes place in the ’90s. Baker and her team do an incredible job of finding that sweet spot of using nostalgia to enhance the cinematic experience without diminishing the focus on Lacy and Janet’s relationship. In an era where the ’90s are, no doubt, going to be increasingly used as a backdrop for coming-of-age narratives, it’s nice to see Janet Planet capture that aesthetic in an organic way that might almost make the film timeless as it ages.

As much as I’ve praised the film so far, I will say that I left my screening wishing I could have gotten more context about Janet, her profession, her past, and possibly anything about Lacy’s other family members. That being said, I could also see myself losing interest in those wants as time passes because Janet Planet is, at its core, a coming-of-age story focused on a sliver of a little girl’s life as her maturity causes her to recontextualize her relationship with her mother.

It’s a film that I’ve enjoyed more with each little moment I look back on it, laughing at lines from Lacy, remarking at a wonderful shot, or even smiling to myself while thinking about the film’s beautiful ending. To me, the film isn’t perfect, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see some people call this their favorite film of the year. Regardless of its flaws, Janet Planet is yet another delightful example of why coming-of-age stories have persisted for this long in cinema, with no signs of stopping. 

 | Website

Freelance writer out of Indianapolis. Co-host of Odd Trilogies podcast. Whether it's films or television, I'm always down to watch!

Latest Reviews