Review: ‘The Planters,’ starring Alexandra Kotcheff and Hannah Leder

November 11, 2020

by Carla Hay

Hannah Leder and Alexandra Kotcheff in “The Planters” (Photo courtesy of 1091 Pictures)

“The Planters”

Directed by Alexandra Kotcheff and Hannah Leder

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed desert area of the United States, the comedy film “The Planters” features a racially diverse cast (white, Asian and Latino) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: Two women with opposite personalities form an unlikely friendship and end up living together while dealing with personal struggles.

Culture Audience: “The Planters” will appeal primarily to people who like very quirky comedies that have underlying meanings and symbolism.

Phil Parolisi and Alexandra Kotcheff in “The Planters” (Photo courtesy of 1091 Pictures)

If you’re the type of person who thinks comedy has to be about a constant stream of jokes or slapstick situations, then “The Planters” won’t be your type of movie. Instead, the very quirky and off-kilter “The Planters” has a story that tends to wander but there are definite clues that the movie has a deeper meaning than just some people acting strangely. It’s not a movie for everyone, but it’s a highly original film that should please fans of people who like Wes Anderson-type of comedies that are filled with eccentric characters.

Alexandra Kotcheff and Hannah Leder (who have been friends in real life since childhood) are the stars, directors, writers, cinematographers and two of the producers of “The Planters,” which was filmed on location in a desert community near California’s Salton Sea. As has been widely reported in press coverage of “The Planters,” Kotcheff and Leder filmed the movie over 127 non-consecutive days without a film crew on the set. In other words, Kotcheff and Leder also did the movie’s production design, costume design, hair and makeup.

In “The Planters,” Kotcheff plays Martha Plant, a solemn bachelorette who lives in isolation. She is grieving the loss of her adoptive parents, who died a year earlier. Who or what caused their death is revealed later in the movie. Martha, who has a very deadpan demeanor, is the narrator of the story.

Martha has two sources of income: She works as a telemarketer for a company that sells air-conditioning units (it’s a job she hates) and as a “planter,” someone who plants tin candy dishes that are filled with random “treasures” in the desert. Martha explains in a voiceover narration that anonymous people, whom she’s never met, pay her for this planter job, which she’s been doing since she was 11. Because of this planter job, Martha has empty candy tins all over her modest house.

Martha’s employers for the planter job are unknown to her, and “I’d like to keep it that way,” says Martha, who adds, “They compensate me in cash. We never meet, but we both win. It’s the highlight of my day … I bury treasure for the lucky person who gets to it first.” And sometimes, that lucky person is Martha.

In an early scene in the movie, Martha digs up a candy tin and finds a $10 bill. Martha quips aloud about Alexander Hamilton (the United States’ first secretary treasurer), whose portrait is on the $10 bill: “Not my favorite president, but I’ll take it.” Apparently, Martha doesn’t know that Hamilton was never president of the United States.

Within seconds of of finding this $10 bill, a strange woman comes hurtling down a nearby desert hill and crashes into Martha. This woman’s name is Sadie Mayflower (played by Hannah Leder), and she’s been released from a psychiatric institution that’s shutting down and has discharged all of its nonviolent patients. Sadie has multiple personalities. Her alternate personalities are a 4-year-old girl named Emma and a woman named Angie, who’s a jaded partier.

Even though Martha and Sadie meet under awkward circumstances, Martha decides to invite Sadie into her home and give Sadie a place to stay. There’s a recurring visual throughout the movie of Martha pulling Sadie in a small wagon whenever they venture outside. Sadie is a very religious Christian, while non-religious Martha tells Sadie, “I’m not really into that stuff.”

Whereas Martha is very stoic, introverted and closed-off from her emotions, Sadie is very effusive, outgoing and is always talking about how she feels. Their initial impressions of each other is that they each think the other person is kind of weird. Martha tries to find out where Sadie came from, and that’s how Martha discovers that Sadie’s previous home was a psychiatric institution. However, Martha still doesn’t hesitate to let Sadie stay with her, which is an indication that Martha is a lot lonelier than she would like to admit.

Sadie tells Martha that her fiancé Carl recently dumped her because he found out that Sadie has been having sex since she was 12 years old. Apparently, that made Sadie too “impure” for Carl. Meanwhile, Martha opens up to Sadie about her childhood, by telling her that although her adoptive parents were great, she was adopted because her birth mother left her in a trash can.

Not long after Martha lets Sadie into her home, they visit a church, where an elderly caretaker named Jésus (played by Pepe Serna) looks at Sadie in a lecherous way. When he hears that Sadie doesn’t have a permanent home, Jésus invites her to live in the back room of the church. Martha immediately speaks for Sadie and flatly refuses Jésus’ offer. Martha seems a little too possessive over someone she just met. But it’s clear later in the story that Martha likes Sadie as company, even if Sadie sometimes gets on Martha’s nerves.

Throughout the movie, Sadie has religious visions that only she can see. The oddball nature of “The Planters” shows these visions as stop-motion animation with clay figures. (Sam Barnett did the animation for the film.) In one vision, Sadie opens up a candy tin that’s in Martha’s house. Inside, she sees three Christ-like figures on crucifixes. One of them is talking to the others, and he says, “You can’t get to really know a girl speed dating. You really need at least an hour face-to-face to find out who she really is.”

The three figurines look up with startled expressions and see Sadie staring at them, and they immediately stop the conversation. Sadie closes the tin quickly and tells Martha what she saw. Martha is skeptical when Sadie tells her about these visions, which also include scenarios and people described in the Bible, such as Noah’s Ark and Moses.

The rest of the movie also involves some hijinks over Martha possibly losing her telemarketing job. Martha’s boss suddenly calls and tells her that for the past two years, she’s only sold four air conditioning units. He tells her that if she doesn’t sell 30 units in the next two weeks, she’ll be fired. It’s a jolt to Martha that motivates her as she begins to understand how aimless her life had been. It’s not that she wants to keep the job, but now she feels she has something to prove.

The movie gets a lot of mileage out of the angry and occasionally hilarious reactions that Martha gets from people she calls as a telemarketer. Sadie begins to sit in on these calls (Martha uses a speaker phone), and they both find out that Sadie’s more outgoing personality gives Sadie better skills than Martha has to connect with customers. Sadie ends up trying to help Martha reach her sales goal by the deadline. Sadie also helps Martha by becoming a “planter” too.

A “third wheel” becomes a part of the budding friendship between Martha and Sadie. His name is Richard Cox (played by Phil Parolisi), a homeless sad sack who meets Martha and Sadie and ends up tagging along with them. There are other various random people go come and go in the story.

On the surface, “The Planters” is a very strange movie where not a whole lot makes much sense. However, the movie is obviously an allegory for the origins of humanity and ancient or religious stories that have been passed on for generations. Martha and Sadie represent the two sides of Mother Earth (or Eve, if you have Judeo-Christian beliefs) and the idea that the first human created was female.

The movie’s Jésus character who’s the church caretaker represents the Christian religion and how it entices people who are looking for emotional shelter and guidance. And the Richard Cox character is a symbol for patriarchy. His name gives it away: Richard Cox, who could be nicknamed Dick Cox.

Even if people don’t want to think too deeply about the symbolism and metaphors in “The Planters,” the movie is entertaining for the contrasting performances of Kotcheff and Leder, who do an impressive job with all the responsibilities they handled for this low-budget independent film. Singer/songwriter Phil Danyen has some memorable original music in the film’s eclectic soundtrack, particularly the disco-inspired and insanely catchy song “Can’t Stand the Heat,” which plays in the main part of the movie and over the closing credits.

“The Planters” is not the type of movie that will be considered a classic. But for people who are open to seeing a movie that’s unpredictable, original and definitely wacky, then “The Planters” fits that description perfectly.

1091 Pictures released “The Planters” in select U.S. cinemas on October 9, 2020. The movie’s digital and VOD release date is December 8, 2020.