Thursday, June 27, 2024

Dull movie about a rich subject

  Janet Planet explores the complex relationship between a single mother (Julianne Nicholson) and her young daughter (Zoe Ziegler).
  The subject brims with possibility. Visitors (some in romantic relationships with Mom) come and go, leaving Ziegler's 11-year-old Lacy to adjust to Mom's fluid living situation.
  Writer/director Annie Baker, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, sets her film in a cabin-like home in rural Massachusetts, attuning the story to the viewpoint of a child who craves more of her mother's attention.
    Promising, yes, but the movie goes flat.
    Baker's directorial choices favor the ordinary over the dramatic, not necessarily a mistake but one that risks tedium. Made with an often static camera and indulging a preference for pauses that threaten to tip into emptiness, Janet Planet drifts into dullness. 
    Baker structures the movie around the instability with which Lacy lives, introducing various residents of the house occupied by Mom  -- Janet of the title -- and Lacy.
    Early on, Janet, a recently licensed acupuncturist, is seen living with Wayne (Will Patton), a brooding fellow who seems to regard conversation as a mortal sin. Baker introduces the “Wayne’’ scenes with a title card reading, "Wayne." When Wayne departs, another title card offers a terse, "End Wayne."
    The rest of the movie follows suit: Additional chapter headings introduce Regina (Sophie Okonedo), a former friend who moves in for a while.
    A bearded visitor named Avi (Elias Koteas) follows Regina into the house. He offers short talks on big subjects, notably the origin of the universe. Avi  doesn't converse, so much as lecture, a role he may have adopted as leader of a cult to which Regina once belonged.
   I wondered whether Baker found these characters more interesting than I did.
   Baker doesn't do much to vary the movie's tone. Lucy leaves home for a piano Lesson. She and another girl run around a local mall. Lacy sets up a small stage in her bedroom and populates it with figurines.  Mother and daughter walk into the woods to view a show given by a roving theater company in which performers don large puppet costumes.
    The performances have a tamped down quality. A quirky Ziegler convey's Lacy's distress As played by Nicholson, Janet fumbles her way through relationships and agonizes about whether she's capable of finding fulfillment. She makes bad choices in men.
    Dry flashes of humor can be found. The movie opens with Lacy calling her mother and asking to be picked up from summer camp. Her suitcase is ready.
    "I'm going to kill myself if you don't come get me,'' she says, ridiculously raising the stakes of her request.
    Janet Planet  felt edgeless to me, a movie that was  reluctant to sharpen anything that might have added dramatic seasoning. 
    When Lacy practices piano on a folding keyboard, it's clear that she's no budding Paderewsky. If that's meant to be humorous, it works for a second, but the joke quickly deflates.
    Baker has rich dramatic soil to till but nothing much grows from it. Janet Planet seldom opens up emotionally. For me, it became a slog.

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