Annie Baker’s ‘Janet Planet’ Captures the Beautiful Hell of Queer Childhood

Childhood is a time of extremes. One moment no one at sleepaway camp likes you. The next, you’ve made a friend. You’re in a state of constant discovery, torn between the joy of curiosity and the burden of reality. Childhood was hell and I hated every minute of it. Except, of course, I didn’t.

When we first meet Lacy (Zoe Ziegler), the ten year old protagonist of Annie Baker’s debut feature Janet Planet, she is threatening to kill herself. Or, at least, she’s saying that so her mom (Julianne Nicholson) will pick her up from camp. The next day she’ll realize this call was premature — alas her mom has already received her money back. The adult world doesn’t have time for the whims of children. It didn’t in the 90s when Lacy is growing up; it doesn’t now.

Lacy is a dramatic, intense child, but she expresses her feelings quietly. She’s not a force, but a presence. She is only inconvenient in her refusals — to stay, to go, to sleep apart from her mom. She’s queer in that she asks if it’s okay for her to someday fall in love with a woman and queer in the sense that she’s simply different. Her rich interior life and private play are more advanced than her social skills.

It’s fitting that Baker and her DP Maria von Hausswolff have found a visual style to match Lacy’s quiet intensity. Shots are held to an extended meditative length, but they’re almost exclusively close ups and wides. There are no mediums in Lacy’s world. The peaceful exterior of the beautiful 16mm photography is betrayed by this constant oscillating between removal and obsessive attention.

While this may be Baker’s first feature, it’s no surprise that her grasp on cinema is already so developed. After all, she won a Pulitzer for a play about a movie theatre filled with many cinematic references. A vocal cinephile, it’s easy to feel the influence on Baker from films like L’enfance nue and Fanny and Alexander — and, less obviously, the rhythms and seductions of filmmakers ranging from Chantal Akerman to Apichatpong Weerasethakul.

And yet Baker’s cinematic style feels wholly her own. It shares DNA with the precise cadence of her plays as much as these cinematic reference points. I was hardly the only one to think her playwriting would translate well to film, but it’s still thrilling to finally see that manifest so fully.

The arrival of this not-new-but-new-to-film voice wouldn’t be possible without her collaborators. Maria von Hausswolff, especially, deserves another mention. 16mm is my favorite format (for filmmaking? for all artmaking?) and if anyone asks why I could simply point to Janet Planet. The entire props and costume and production design team also deserves celebration for sustaining the many close ups on objects. And the editing by Lucian Johnston creates flow between the contrasted shots resulting in the film’s steady pace.

Then, of course, there are the performers. Zoe Ziegler gives a special performance, containing none of the artifice often found in young actors. And Julianne Nicholson gets the part I’ve been waiting for ever since she out-acted far more famous names in the August: Osage County film adaptation. It’s not a showy role, yet she shows her depth of talent. The supporting cast matches the heights of the leads. Will Patton and Elias Koteas play two very different types of men to perfection and Sophie Okonedo delivers some of this quiet film’s best words.

Janet Planet is a film you sink into. I’ve already seen it twice and feel drawn to see it again. It’s a film that continues to reveal new details on-screen and new details internally as a viewer. Movies often employ cheap nostalgia; this film employs deep nostalgia. You may chuckle recognizing the Clarissa Explains It All theme song, but it’s more likely a glance shared between mother and daughter will be your Proust’s madeleine.

Whether you’re a longtime fan of Annie Baker’s plays, or meeting her work for the first time, Janet Planet is a rapturous cinematic experience. For every queer outsider, for every former child, for every daughter of a mother, for every performer and healer and human, this film is worth your precious time.

Janet Planet is now in theatres.

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Drew Burnett Gregory

Drew is a Brooklyn-based writer, filmmaker, and theatremaker. She is a Senior Editor at Autostraddle with a focus in film and television, sex and dating, and politics. Her writing can also be found at Bright Wall/Dark Room, Cosmopolitan UK, Refinery29, Into, them, and Knock LA. She was a 2022 Outfest Screenwriting Lab Notable Writer and a 2023 Lambda Literary Screenwriting Fellow. She is currently working on a million film and TV projects mostly about queer trans women. Find her on Twitter and Instagram.

Drew Burnett has written 566 articles for us.

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