In ‘Janet Planet,’ playwright Annie Baker explores a new dramatic world

June 19, 2024   -NEW YORK (AP) — The Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Annie Baker has been hailed as one of the preeminent voices of her generation, but the movies have long lingered in her mind and in her work.

In her play, “The Flick,” a trio of workers clean up between showings at a smalltown arthouse theater. In “The Antipodes,” a writers room brainstorming session grows increasingly abstract but has the conference-room shape and mostly male composition of a Hollywood pitch meeting.

Now, Baker, 43, has made a film. It’s a first-time feature but, thrillingly, the evident product of a masterful dramatic veteran. For Baker, it’s less a new beginning than the realization of a long deferred dream. When Baker moved to New York to attend college, she did it, she says, “to be as near as many movie theaters as possible.”

She nearly applied to film school but opted instead to study dramatic writing. Her career as a playwright took off. Her first play, “Body Awareness,” won an Obie Award in 2009, as did her follow-up, “The Aliens.” Baker adapted “Uncle Vanya” in 2012 and, in 2014, won the Pulitzer for “The Flick.” In 2017, she was named a MacArthur Fellow.

Occasionally, Baker tried her hand at screenwriting. But being a celebrated American playwright tends to be a full-time gig. Movies faded as a possibility.

“I decided around 38 or 39 that it was never going to happen and I was going to be OK with it,” Baker said in a recent interview over lunch at the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. “I remember saying it out loud to someone. I think I said: ‘I’m just not going to get to direct a movie in this life.’”

But almost as soon as Baker made that pronouncement, fate intervened. On Friday, A24 will release Baker’s debut, “Janet Planet,” about a single mother named Janet (Julianne Nicholson) living in 1990s Western Massachusetts with her 11-year-old daughter, Lacy (Zoe Ziegler).

“It’s been a lesson throughout my whole career. You just have to let go of ambition and start working from another place inside of yourself,” Baker says. “I do wonder if saying it out loud enabled me to do it.”

“Janet Planet” is a cinematic experience as precisely attuned to daily rhythms as Baker’s stage work is. The film’s perspective is largely from that of Lacy, whose watchful eyes follow a string of her mother’s relationships as they pass through their home. As in Baker’s plays, little may be appearing to happen but the sense that something profound is transpiring under the surface is palpable. In an unspoken coming of age, Lacy begins to see her mom less as a lofty parental figure and more as a regular person.

“I don’t have nostalgia for that time period. I find it aesthetically interesting, but I don’t have a romantic take on it,” says Baker. “I feel like the movie has a lot of mild dread in it.”

“Janet Planet” isn’t strictly autobiographical but it draws heavily from Baker’s own childhood growing up with her divorced mother in Amherst. Baker’s film, shot in Western Massachusetts, is also authentically woodsy. Just as several of her plays — including the Vermont-set “Body Awareness” — have sought to capture quotidian lives and subtle social shifts in smalltown New England, Baker resolved that she would make “Janet Planet” in rural Massachusetts — or she wouldn’t make it, at all.

Drawing such a line, when it’s typically cheaper to shoot closer to New York City, can be risky. But just as Baker writes plays with specific actors in mind, like Matthew Maher for “The Flick,” she figured she would do the same for movie locations.

“It’s scary when you’re making your first movie to be like, ‘No,’ because the movie might not happen if you say no too much,” says Baker. “Now when you see the movie, you know you couldn’t shoot that in Mamaroneck.”

For Nicholson, the location and subject matter of “Janet Planet” was eerily close to home, too. From the ages of 7 to 11, she lived in nearby Montague. She was a camp counselor in Goshen.

“The whole summer blew my mind,” says Nicholson. “I can’t even go too deep into because I’ll literally burst into tears. It just felt so huge at every turn to be walking these places that were so formative.”

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