What to Watch: "Janet Planet"

Plus: Streaming movie recommendations and the five most overlooked Donald Sutherland performances.

What to Watch: "Janet Planet"
Julianne Nicholson and Zoe Ziegler in "Janet Planet"

A busy week here on the homefront: Three movie reviews for the Washington Post "Thelma," "The Bikeriders," "Ghostlight"), plus a Sunday article on why the cliché of “a director and his muse” finally seems to be dying off, and then Donald Sutherland went and died and I got drafted to write the appreciation. Since that’s a ton of copy, I’m going to send it around to paid subscribers as a separate email in a bit (or if you’re a WaPo subscriber, you can read all the above pieces there). For now, an extra review of “Janet Planet,” a lovely little indie-movie gem, follows – if I had to send you to one movie this weekend, it would either be that one or the hilarious “Thelma.”

But first, indulge me while I list the five most underrated Donald Sutherland performances in the actor’s long, varied career:

1.    Ordinary People (1980) – Mary Tyler Moore, Tim Hutton, Judd Hirsch – all Oscar nominated. Sutherland has that devastating midnight dining room scene and gets bupkis.

2.    Without Limits (1998) – The other Steve Prefontaine movie (there were two, remember?) with DS as the kid’s coach and future Nike co-founder Bill Bowerman.

3.    Start the Revolution Without Me (1970) – A double role for Sutherland (and Gene Wilder) as switched-twin fops and commoners.

4.    Eye of the Needle (1981) – A German spy on the Isle of Mull during WWII. A reminder that he could play seductive, sympathetic, and sinister all at the same time.

5.    Pride and Prejudice (2005) –The best Mr. Bennet of them all (and he gets the closing line in the film’s British cut).

And you? What’s your favorite Donald Sutherland performance? Do tell. 

Zoe Ziegler and Julianne Nicholson in "Janet Planet"

I love it when artists in other mediums decide to direct a movie, because they bring all their talent to the task without any preconceived notions about how to make a proper film, with results that are often strange and wondrous and more interesting than the work of seasoned moviemakers. Case in point: “Janet Planet” (⭐ ⭐ ⭐ 1/2, in theaters), the first film to be written and directed by Pulitzer-winning playwright Annie Baker (“The Flick”). It’s a tender yet subversive memory play set in western Massachusetts during the summer of 1991 – not coincidentally, the year Baker turned 10 – about a dour little girl and her free-spirited counterculture mother.

The first thing you notice is that the pacing is all wrong – or I should say “wrong,” since what might not work in a more traditional movie comes to seem a mark of idiosyncratic authenticity, the only way Baker feels she can tell her tale. Shots are held at length; scenes consist of small, mundane moments; you fight your way into the thing until your inner gears downshift to the appropriate lope and suddenly there you are experiencing life at the speed of Lacy (Zoe Ziegler), who looks at the world through owlish glasses and debates whether she should join in.

Ziegler is a find, the kind of natural screen presence who can draw you to her without doing seeming to do anything. She looks a little like what I imagine cartoonist Roz Chast looked like as a young girl; I was also reminded of Pauline Kael’s description of the young Woody Allen as having the face of “a sensible woman shopper.” This is an old soul in the body of a pre-adolescent. Or maybe Lacy just hasn’t committed to anything yet.

You can see why she might not. Her mother, Janet (Julianne Nicholson), practices acupuncture out of their house, a rambling warren of unpainted wood way out in the country. (The film was shot north of Springfield, in the Five College area; the Creamy Delights ice cream stand in Hadley makes an appearance.) Nicholson brings a warm, freckled gentleness to the role and also a dark cloud of self-doubt; she’s a counterculture madonna who’s always second-guessing herself. She and Lacy seem to trade off being the adult throughout the movie, but the charm of Baker’s vision is that at the end of the day, Lacy is still the kid and Janet is still the mom.

“Janet Planet” – the title makes an old classic-rock dad like me think of Van Morrison’s wife in the 1970s, prominently displayed on his album covers until she got fed up with being his horse-riding Guinevere and hightailed it out of there – is about the lingering fumes of the hippie era and its effects on a woman’s self-worth. The film is roughly divided into three parts, one for each of the three characters who move in and out of Janet and Lacy’s life. First is Wayne (Will Patton), a grizzled, divorced boyfriend for Janet; when he moves out of the picture, Regina (Sophie Okenedo), rescued from a farm community that’s not really a cult (maybe), moves in. Regina is good fun and a little damaged and a bit of a user, and there’s a marvelous scene where the two women are tripping on something or other, and while Janet uses her high to try to get to the bottom of her lousy self-esteem – “What is that word ‘bad’? Why do we say that to ourselves?” – Regina misreads the room and decides to offer constructive criticism. While on drugs.

That Lacy is sitting there while this is all going on is presented without commentary by the film – I knew kids who grew up with this sort of thing and so did you. And while Janet is the kind of mother who unburdens herself to her daughter without much in the way of boundaries, she’s also genuinely caring and concerned. There are plenty of movies about narcissistic moms; this isn’t one of them.

Sophie Okenedo and Julianne Nicholson in "Janet Planet"

The third interloper is the sort-of cult leader himself, Avi (Elias Koteas), a bearded, painfully easygoing dude who sets his cap for Janet over dinner with a long monologue about God and the Buddha and the beginning of the universe, and at a certain point in this palaver, Lacy looks at her mother sideways in a way that just about brings down the house. “Janet Planet” is moving into late summer by then, with autumnal wisdom on the way, and what roiled with uncertainty at first starts to smooth out into the observant rhythms of comedy. Lacy has refused to be a joiner throughout the film – bailing out of summer camp, balking at boarding the school bus – perhaps because she sees her mother unable to function without being seen, needed, desired by others. Who wants the bother? The wonderful final scenes seem to resolve the issue for both mother and daughter, though, first in a hushed, mysterious scene at twilight and then with a burst of bluegrass music that ushers us into the end credits in a way that brought tears to my eyes. “Janet Planet” is slow but sure; it’s one of the few movies that hears birdsong on the soundtrack and gets it right; and it honors the mistakes we make as we tumble along and the lessons we pass down as we go.

And now for your weekly recommend On Demand picks.

On Netflix: “Remembering Gene Wilder” (2023) – Just what it says.

On Amazon: “The Proposition” (2005) – Stylish, superior, savage Australian western with Guy Pearce, from a script by rocker Nick Cave.

On Apple TV: “Knuckleball!” (2012) – Excellent baseball documentary on the notorious pitch and the men who can throw it.

On Hulu: “The Promised Land” (2023) – Lavish old-fashioned period epic with Mads Mikkelsen in fine form.

On Paramount+: “Son of Rambow” (2007) – No, it’s not a Rambo sequel. Yes, it’s a delightful British comedy about schoolkids making a movie. With a young and very funny Will Poulter.

Feel free to leave a comment or add to someone else's.

If you enjoyed this post, please forward it to friends! And if you’re not a paying subscriber and would like to sign up for additional postings and to join the discussions — or just help underwrite this enterprise, for which the author would be eternally grateful — here’s how.