Friday, June 21, 2024

Janet Planet (2023) opens today

This is a respost of my NYFF review from last year

For me there are a number of problems with JANET PLANET. Some of them to do with Annie Baker's script and some of them to do with the film being a festival darling- which is due entirely to it being a film by Annie Baker and the mind set of big fests to program films with a name attached to them whether they deserve to be there or not.

The film is the episodic story of a mother and daughter over the course of several months as mom drifts in and out of relationships and her daughter just tries to get through life. Mom is a therapist working at home. She has a tendency to pick the wrong men. As the film opens she is in a relationship with Wayne a gruff guy who won't talk of his past, has a daughter and son he never sees. Lacy, Janet's daughter doesn't like him and he is dumped when Lacy insists on it. Next in the rotation is Regina, a friend of Janet's who comes to stay after leaving Avi and his group. Regina leaves and Avi becomes a suitor. Through it all Lacy is needy, occasionally sarcastic and a loner.

Though named for the mother, the film is kind of focused on both women but not really on either, though more on Lacy than Janet. If that seems like an odd statement it is because the film itself is rambling and oddly focused. We get moments of time. We get lots of silences and pieces of conversations but nothing connects. We are outsiders looking in but we never see anything that connects us to the women and what they are experiencing. There are moments in their lives but no sense of the whole. We get almost revelations but nothing concrete. The one moment where something might be an ah ha moment, a stoned discussion between Regina and Janet, goes off the rails because Janet's train of thought s lost. We are left on the outside looking in with only looks to fill in the blanks.

While never bad, the film is kind of good on its own terms, but I never connected. I'm not sure that many in the audience did either since out of the seven public screenings I have attended to at NYFF 2023 with Q&As, this one had the most people walking out before it started. Indeed Hubert and myself left as the lights were going up. We simply didn't need to know more.

The problem for me, and the thing that I keep coming back to is the feeling that this is the first film of a newbie director who is just learning to tell a story (cinematicly).  The huge problem with this is that Annie Baker is Pulitzer prize winning playwright who knows how to tell a story and build characters, I've seen and read her plays.  This should have had a better constructed script. Did all the connecting tissue go in editing?  I don't know, but something, a lot of things really, seem missing.

Quite honestly this film is no better than any number of small inde films I've seen this year. Additionally given a list of the too many films I've seen in the last year I could give at least ten better films on the same subject of mothers and daughters that would have been better choices for the festival.

There is no doubt that this film got into the NYFF because Annie Baker made it...and that is the problem NYFF and other festivals deal with. It's a problem they are very aware of because in the introduction to the film Dennis Lim said that the festival tends NOT to show the work of new filmmakers but leans on the work of known quantities. He said flat out Baker's name resulted in the selection. What an absolute shame.

I know why it's done, known directors are easier sells. They come with less hassles and assure that there will be some butts in seats. The problem is that in doing so the festival becomes a cult of personality (Godard, or Sang Soo anyone?). It's not a celebration of all films, rather it's a celebration of the big names.  NYFF, like the other major festivals, program the films from people who will get attention to their screenings, which explains why this year most screenings sold out.

The problem is that it often results in  films that in a more perfect world probably wouldn't get in on their merits. Too often over the last few years I have walked out of NYFF films thinking the film was good but not something that should be at one of the top festivals in the world. Never have I felt that more strongly than with JANET PLANET.

Again this is not a knock against JANET PLANET, which is fine for what it is, but more unhappiness that like in other areas of life, parentage does make a difference in a child's success. (Honestly festivals like NYFF and the other big ones should do a sidebar of films from  the inde world and up coming filmmakers that are programmed by people just looking for gems where ever they can be found)

Ultimately JANET PLANET is worth a look for the early work of a first time filmmaker who will hopefully get better with time.

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