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Arts + CultureMoviesScreen Grabs: 'Janet Planet,' and other cosmic mysteries of...

Screen Grabs: ‘Janet Planet,’ and other cosmic mysteries of the human relationship

'Chestnut' and 'This Closeness' dig into contemporary 20something affairs; 'The Devil's Bath' goes back to 1750.

Fifty years and three months ago, more or less, saw the debut of People magazine—a harmless-enough event at the time, though one that in retrospect looked like the opening sally of the “celebrities 24/7” media that has since nearly crowded out legitimate news reporting. The second issue put then-Hollywood “it” couple Peter Bogdanovich and Cybill Shepherd on the cover, unknowing helping precipitate their downfall. People (real people) hated the gist of the profile “Living Together Is Sexy”—particularly since the director had left wife-collaborator Polly Platt to shack up with his Last Picture Show protegee—then hated them again when the duo guest-hosted The Tonight Show, exuding smug self-satisfaction.

All that rancor got unloaded onto their new film Daisy Miller, his first flop and her first starring vehicle. Even more despised a year later was At Long Last Love, in which she and Burt Reynolds dared to make like Fred & Ginger. Both these movies are better regarded now—the Henry James adaptation (made too far in advance of the costume-drama vogue Merchant Ivory fueled) has been recognized as a jewel, and the musical as a noble, somewhat charming misstep. But back then critics treated them as personal affronts, and Hollywood was all too glad to take the golden pair down a peg or three.

That wee flashback is our convoluted way of approaching some new releases in which living together is not at all glamorous or sexy—indeed, all human relationships seem land-mined, full of hidden perils that a stray step might cause to blow the whole joint skyward.

Janet Planet

The functionally dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship at the heart of playwright Annie Baker’s feature debut (as both writer and director) is not unlike those portrayed in prior movies like Captain Fantastic and The Ballad of Jack and Rose—well-intentioned hippie parenting that nonetheless leaves the wee-‘uns ill-equipped for the challenges of mainstream society. 11-year-old Lacy (Zoe Ziegler) fakes suicidal urges in order to get “rescued” from summer camp, only to regret that move when it turns out mom is still cohabiting with Wayne (Will Patton), a taciturn older man.

We gradually realize her mistake is understandable: 40-ish Janet (Julianne Nicholson), an acupuncturist, has gone through a lot of romantic relationships during Lacy’s lifespan, and will rack up a couple more (with characters played by Sophie Okonedo and Elias Koteas) before her only child’s dreaded new school year starts in September. For all the New Age trappings, mom is not so much a free spirit as a dominant force whose medium is serial monogamy—Janet enjoys the power of making people fall in love with her, then grows impatient after each fresh conquest.

Pulitzer-winning Baker at first seems an indifferent filmmaker, in that her patience-testing pace takes getting used to, and the deliberately plain visual aesthetic reminiscent of ’70s and ’80s movies feels borderline drab. But these choices, like everything else here, prove purposeful as this quietly impressive, slyly humorous drama insinuates itself. What initially plays as a battle of will between an impossible child and long-suffering single parent peels back layers until we realize hapless Lacy’s dependency is mom’s greatest triumph—she’s the one adorer who’ll always get strung along.

Even then, Baker refuses to indict Janet. She may seem an exotic creature to some viewers, but many longtime Bay Areans will recognize the sometimes self-defeating mix of hard-won independence and idealism from local counterculture veterans. (Never mind that the film is set in 1991 West Massachusetts.) These are complicated figures played in a scrupulously low key. Their movie sneaks up on you, then lingers in the mind long after. It opens in Bay Area theaters this Fri/28.

Chestnut 

Never quite figuring out the ambiguities of the new relationship(s) she’s stumbled into is the heroine in this feature by another debuting female writer-director, Jac Cron. Annie (Natalia Dyer of Stranger Things) is a recent college grad about to move from Philly to LA when she meets extroverted Tyler (Rachael Keller), the kind of dazzling personality who attracts others like moths to a flame, but is maddeningly evasive when it comes to follow-through. As Annie seems to be still figuring herself out (is she gay? bi?), such game-playing both allures and confounds. It doesn’t help that Tyler already has a steady companion in hunky hipster Danny (Danny Ramirez), though the precise terms of their relationship aren’t at all clear, either.

Chestnut’s general premise and will-they-or-won’t-they sexual frisson bear a strong resemblance to The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, coming off as a Sapphic spin on Michael Chabon’s 1988 debut novel—though one that feels more like an attenuated short story. The script doesn’t ultimately come up with enough depth for the characters or story to leave more than a fleeting impression. But like the summertime flirtations depicted, Cron’s film as a whole does feel like an authentic representation of youthful impulses suspended between infatuation, uncertainty, and evolving self-knowledge. Utopia releases Chestnut to digital platforms this Sunday, July 2.

This Closeness

Protagonists in the same general age/class/ethnic/educational range form a different kind of problematic triangle in this microbudget sophomore feature from Kit Zauhar, who wrote, directed, and stars in it. Her Tessa is one half of a couple with Ben (Zane Pais, who as a child played Nicole Kidman’s son in the criminally underrated Margot at the Wedding)—two self-absorbed, attractive twentysomethings in town for his high school reunion. So naturally they express 50 selfie’d shades of “Ewwwww” upon realizing the host for their Airbnb-type apartment share rental is painfully shy, bespectacled nerd Adam (Ian Edlund). His muted welcome is partly explained by the fact that he didn’t even book their stay; that was handled by a roommate now absent due to family emergency.

This Closeness looks at first like your classic “normal couple menaced by maladjusted weirdo” thriller setup, but it has different goals. Ben and Tessa’s overreaction to Adam’s mild, introverted eccentricity is unsympathetic, even if she makes more of an effort to be “nice.” They’re loud, judge-y, presumptuous guests who make him feel a creepy interloper in his own home. Adam, stereotypical flipside to the Gen Z coin, is withdrawn and oversensitive, seeking invisibility rather than exposure. (Tessa, by contrast, is a fairly popular YouTuber.)

He has to hear their bratty quarrels—exacerbated by Ben’s renewed acquaintance with needy high school pal Lizzy (Jessie Pinnick)—through thin walls, because god forbid they should exercise any restraint in a stranger’s house. This single-setting tale, in which everyone’s insecurities get scraped raw, makes for discomfiting viewing…but it has its own thorny authenticity. It begins streaming on specialty platform MUBI July 3rd.

The Devil’s Bath

The very modern, First World problems of relating and fulfillment suffered above seem trivial besides the plight of Agnes (Anja Plaschg) in this latest from the Austrian duo of Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala. The period piece is superficially very different from their prior features (Goodnight MommyThe Lodge), but at core an extension of the same themes—it, too, plays like a horror movie but is really about untreated mental illness.

Agnes is a young woman who marries outside her village in the countryside of Upper Austria, 1750. But isolation from kin proves problematic when husband Wolf (David Scheid) moves them to a house in the woods, where she is nonetheless subject to daily criticism from his mother (Maria Hofstatter). He’s gone much of the time, and dismayingly indifferent to her need for affection when not. Seemingly unable to carve out a place for herself in this setting, Agnes begins to unravel, her distress arousing suspicion amongst locals inclined to interpret any digression from the norm as a sign of witchery.

Indeed, The Devil’s Bath strongly recalls Robert Eggers’ The Witch and Lukas Feigelfield’s lesser-seen Hagazussa, two similarly bleak portrayals of unforgiving rural pasts in which supernatural fears turned out to be all too apt. “Based on historical records,” this tale takes a different tact—onscreen text at the end spells out the particular intersection of real-life law, crime, despair, and religion that led to tragedy for women like Agnes in this place and era. The film is beautifully crafted, yet the mill of torments it puts Plaschg (best known as the mastermind behind music act Soap&Skin) through becomes something of a dirge, monotonous and overlong at 121 minutes. We grok the gist of poor Agnes’ oppression well before the film finally puts her out of her misery. Bath begins streaming on genre platform Shudder this Fri/28.

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