AFI Fest Review: ‘The Planters’ Grows Into a Fragile State of Mind

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2019 AFI FEST: Alexandra Kotcheff and Hannah Leder’s “The Planters” represents a stunning feat of auteur announcement. The dynamic duo both star and direct their debut with tour de force confidence, commanding every frame of their black comedy with tonal preciseness. Every gesture, expression, line-read, and framing technique is meticulous in forming a world of ensnared malaise. The women play misfits who bond from unusual happenstance, quickly realizing they offer more to each other than anyone else in their local community quick to discount them. Echoing the offbeat nature of a Wes Anderson film, except with women at the artistic forefront, this quirky tale of unexpected friendship takes a satirical look at mental fragility when inundated by small-town imperiousness.

Martha Plant (Kotcheff) is a soft-spoken recluse who works in telemarketing for an air conditioning company co-founded by her late father. In four years she has only sold five units, the paltry showing of which prompts her boss to deliver an ultimatum of termination if she doesn’t produce thirty sales in two weeks. Martha’s unenthusiastic, deadpan sales pitch over the phone always results in five-second hangups, making her boss’s condition an impossible achievement. Not even her side-hustle and true entrepreneurial passion — burying tin-packaged treasure for hobbyists in the surrounding California dunes — can offset the cost of losing her job.

Of course, destiny finds Martha in the form of a wandering homeless woman named Sadie (Leder) who was just released from a mental institution. With the facility permanently shut down due to illegal financial practices, Sadie is left in Martha’s reluctant charge. At first, the new living arrangements seem promising as Sadie is able to properly coach Martha on phone etiquette. Despite Sadie’s lack of experience in telemarketing, she eventually takes over Martha’s work duties and scores several sales in a span of a few hours. However, Sadie’s deus ex machina powers come with a giant caveat: split-personality disorder.

“The Planters” flips midway from an irreverent outcast buddy comedy to a nuanced examination of mental health. Sadie’s altering personalities exhibit violence, deception, arrested development, kindness, ingenuity, and self-preservation. She’s an example that even those with potentially destructive psychological conditions aren’t always social pariahs who deserve abandonment. While their co-dependency isn’t healthy, Martha and Sadie inspire one another by reclaiming their self-respect. Martha transforms into a compelling saleswoman and Sadie realizes that compassionate people do exist who won’t take advantage of someone’s mental instability.

The narrative weakens when it allows others into its intimate orbit. The late addition of a third housemate, Richard (Phil Parolisi), removes the sanctity of the established female sisterhood. He is a kleptomaniac worse than Martha who plays a weird hybrid of romantic interest and suspect clinger. Character actor Pepe Serna portrays a creepy pastor, Jesús, who attempts to seduce Sadie but is thankfully thwarted by Martha. The sinister nature of his presence needed more vetting, but Jesús serves as a precaution against local religious leaders who pose as therapeutic healers in order to sexually exploit their followers. Speaking of theology, the final shot of the film confounds the nature of Martha and Sadie’s shared reality, leaving us with more questions of internal logic than its intended frivolous farewell.

“The Planters” is part of the AFI Film Festival 2019’s “New Auteurs” program lineup.

GRADE: (★★)