Theater Veteran Annie Baker Turns to Film With Berlin Festival Title ’Janet Planet’ Starring Julianne Nicholson Most Popular Must Read Sign Up for Variety Newsletters More From Our Brands

MacArthur Fellow Annie Baker is an acclaimed playwright and theater director, winning the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for drama for “The Flick,” among other accolades. Now, with the release of the delicate mother-daughter drama “Janet Planet,” both written and directed by Baker, the esteemed theater veteran makes her directorial film debut.

Baker began writing “Janet Planet” in the early days of the pandemic, completing it in December 2020. However, for Baker, this project was a long time in the making. “I’ve been thinking about writing this story which explores a very particular kind of love for a long time, and I even had some notes on it from like 20 years ago, sparse ones, but still, from college.”

In “Janet Planet,” 11-year-old Lacey (Zoe Ziegler) has a difficult time separating from her mother, Janet, (Julianne Nicholson) in the summer before starting middle school. The film sees Janet’s life as a single mother and her relationship with friends and lovers, through Lacey’s eyes. Set against the backdrop of a 1990s Western Massachusetts suburb, the film follows Lacey’s transforming perspective on her mother, from profound admiration to a subtle detachment.

“I don’t want to universalize it but there’s a very deep sensual love children have for mothers at an early age. I was interested in capturing the period, when that begins to change, and possibly rupture, as it inevitably does,” says Baker.

For Baker, who grew up in Western Massachusetts, emulating a child’s spiritual growth in the specific landscape was at heart of the creative process. “Shooting in Western Massachusetts felt non-negotiable. It was just so intrinsic to the movie that it’d be in this place. All the extras are people from my town, and they feel and look a certain way — that was important to me.”

The time period was also key to Baker. “I did not want to be overly nostalgic. I wanted to convey the feeling I remember ’91 having, of things being very detailed and specific when you’re a kid. Time moves very quickly or glacially — I wanted to convey some of that elliptic quality time can have,” says Baker.

Of transitioning into a film set, Baker says, “I was nervous about directing actors on film and barely having rehearsal time.” However, now having done it, she says, “I found it liberating to shoot with actors on film, sharing ideas and trying scenes differently,” adding, “I fell in love with the collective endeavor filmmaking is as well as the accidental beautiful things that happen organically without rehearsal. … Filming was a tiny manic phase but your first movie is also a very particular beast, and I think I embraced the things I didn’t know how to do and learned to own my nascent aesthetic.”

She’s looking forward to her next film project. “I’m excited to make a second movie. To me, film, especially celluloid, is a very spiritual medium so I think in my film writing I like to continue returning to questions of providence or divinity accidentally. The next, however, is set in winter and a smaller cast,” says Baker.

Produced by A24, BBC Film and Present Company, “Janet Planet” is making its international debut in Berlinale’s Panorama.

“A lot of my favorite filmmakers are from Spain, Iran, etc., so it’s exciting to have the film playing in Europe and hopefully connect to people beyond. I’m most interested to see if the film takes on a slightly more abstract quality for international viewers, feels less literal, which I think is probably a good thing,” she says.