A film with a distinctive sense of style, humor and fun, The Planters marks the confident and highly-watchable feature directorial debut of collaborators Alexandra Kotcheff and Hannah Leder. The duo also co-wrote the script and co-star in this brief but enjoyable dark comedy about friendship and grief, with a bit of a mystery thrown in for good measure. Both still in their mid-thirties, Kotcheff and Leder nevertheless make an assured debut with a film heavily influenced by Wes Anderson in both its visuals and dry tone. If mimicry is the highest compliment, the filmmaking duo does Anderson proud, establishing themselves as a new generation of artists who, like those before them, have their elders to thank for creative inspiration.
Kotcheff stars as Martha Plant, a socially awkward orphan who lives in the desert and works as a telemarketer in air conditioner sales; her adoptive elderly parents died a year ago, and she lives a quiet, predictable life alone making her phone calls from her living room. She has a random side hustle as a “planter,” putting objects in tins and burying them for others to come collect, leaving money in the tins in exchange. When a nearby mental institution closes and releases its non-violent patients onto the streets, Martha takes in Sadie Mayflower (Leder), an angelic young woman who seems entirely incapable of harming anyone or anything thing. In fact, when Martha’s boss informs her that her poor performance might just cost her her job, Sadie rallies to help her sell 30 air conditioning units in just two weeks. She creates a countdown board, coaches Martha on how to personalize her calls and cheers her on with each new sale.
But Sadie isn’t as innocent as she seems, as Martha soon learns there’s a reason Sadie was in the mental institution: her multiple personalities, including a four-year-old girl who appears when Sadie feels too vulnerable or scared and a hard-edged vixen who shows up when Sadie needs defending or protecting. In a way only a film as delightfully absurd as this one could manage, it all seems perfectly reasonable, and Martha takes it all in relative stride. Also unique to a film gleefully embracing its weirdness, Kotcheff and Leder weave a bit of whimsical stop-motion animation into the narrative; every time Sadie looks into one of Martha’s mysterious tins, she sees a biblical scene unfold, usually with herself included in claymation form.
As Martha and Sadie get comfortable in each other’s lives, their world expands a bit with influences from a pastor who helped Sadie when she was first released and a connection with Richard (Phil Parolisi), a man Martha reached on one of her sales calls who eventually comes to meet her in person. These added dimensions bring more chaos to Martha’s life than she’s maybe ready to handle, and when her buried treasures begin being returned with less and less money (and sometimes none at all), Martha has to figure out who in her new life is sabotaging her unique line of work. Both Kotcheff and Leder are impressively committed to their roles, and while each create uniquely endearing characters, it’s Leder who does the heavy lifting by managing three distinct personalities masterfully.
A truly independent production, Kotcheff and Leder worked essentially on their own to design and shoot the film they also wrote and star in, which means its their fingerprints all over the intentional framing and inventive editing, too. It all adds up to something refreshingly original, even as their creative influences shine through. The film succeeds because the duo captures and honors those influences while expressing the confidence of much more established artists to infuse the work with their own take, too. The Planters is not the kind of indie film that will turn many heads in a crowded cinematic marketplace, but it certainly should rank among those off-beat options worth turning to when the same-old, same-old fails to inspire, and more than makes a case for its creators as new artists to watch.
The Planters is now playing in Music Box Theatre’s Virtual Cinema.