THE STORY – Chicago, 1968. As a city and the nation are poised on the brink of violent political upheaval, suburban housewife Joy leads an ordinary life with her husband and daughter. When Joy’s pregnancy leads to a life-threatening condition, she must navigate a medical establishment unwilling to help. Her journey to find a solution to an impossible situation leads her to the “Janes,” a clandestine organization of women who provide Joy with a safer alternative — and in the process, change her life.
THE CAST – Elizabeth Banks, Sigourney Weaver, Chris Messina, Kate Mara, Wunmi Mosaku & Cory Michael Smith
THE TEAM – Phyllis Nagy (Director), Hayley Schore & Roshan Sethi (Writers)
THE RUNNING TIME – 121 Minutes
By Ema Sasic
While watching the Sundance premiere of “Call Jane,” the new film by Phyllis Nagy set in a pre-Roe v. Wade era, which gave women the right to have an abortion, and I considered how the Supreme Court ruling is being threatened today, I couldn’t help but think about my mother. Similar to Joy (Elizabeth Banks), she had a life-threatening condition that developed during her second pregnancy. But unlike Joy and countless other women throughout history, my mother’s fate wasn’t up to a hospital boardroom of white men. She and her doctor agreed that the best and life-saving option was to have an abortion. And because this all happened in the early 2000s, my mother didn’t have to seek illegal services from underground clinics. She was heartbroken that she couldn’t welcome a second child into the world, but she was grateful she could see her daughter grow up. What would she have done if that landmark legislation had never passed in 1973? Who would she have turned to? And would she even be alive today?
Nagy’s “Call Jane” explores the powerful story of the Jane Collective, an underground service that provided safe abortions while they were illegal. This group was there for women in their most desperate and terrifying times, and many of those fears are brought to life in the film. Though it never really reaches the heights one would expect with this type of drama, “Call Jane” still delivers an important message.
The film begins with a beautiful tracking shot as Joy, with her blonde hair up and dressed in a blue gown, is walking through a swanky hotel. Everything seems peaceful inside, but outside is a police barricade as protests are taking place during the Democratic National Convention (a timecard with “August 1968” gives it away). Though she doesn’t say much about the commotion, something piqued her interest in her otherwise almost too perfect life. Her husband, Will (Chris Messina), opens car doors for her; she has stylish clothing, lives in a pristine home, and is expecting a second child. But a heart condition complicates the pregnancy and puts her life at risk. Her doctor says an abortion is the only way to save her, and while she agrees, it’s not her decision to make. After a hospital boardroom of white men strikes down without any consideration of her life, Joy has no other option but to seek illegal services. After visiting a shady and beyond terrifying abortionist’s apartment, she finds ads that prompt her to “call Jane.”
Nagy ups up the fear and brutal realities for many women at the time when Joy finally makes her appointment. Though it’s not as scary of a setting as the first shady apartment, the bright lights, loud clangs of medical instruments, and the coldness in the room all make one feel uncomfortable. When Dean (Cory Michael Smith), the man who performs the procedure, tells her she can’t make any noises, you can’t help but clench your teeth and tighten your muscles just thinking about how painful it all must feel.
Joy is eventually pulled into the group, led by Virginia (Sigourney Weaver), even though she didn’t have an inclination to get involved. Virginia has her drive a young woman to her appointment, and later she shows up to more events and takes part in outreach opportunities. But because all of this is so controversial, she has to lie to her husband and 15-year-old daughter, Charlotte (Grace Edwards), that she’s going to an art class. She doesn’t tell her widowed next-door neighbor and friend Lana (Kate Mara) either.
Though “Call Jane” focuses on one white woman’s struggle, there are important acknowledgments of how so many others, particularly those who don’t have an easy life as Joy, are being affected at the time. Gwen (Wunmi Mosaku), the only Black member, fights with Virginia constantly about the steep price – $600 – for the service that many, mainly poor, Black or brown women, can’t afford. The passion in Mosaku’s words echoes and rings true for this issue and so many others. Virginia, played by a headstrong and tough Weaver, pushes back at times until she finds a way to support some free clients. Joy, too, discovers a passion for helping women, even if in the beginning she might be too quick to judge some of them. Banks gives a grounded performance, digging into the emotions of what Joy goes through while also becoming a vital member of the Janes who ends up impacting more women than she ever thought possible.
The film does lose momentum toward the end, even when the stakes are raised for the Janes when a detective starts catching on to the illegal service. This conflict happens so late in the film that it almost poses no significance and is essentially swept to the side a few minutes later. Also, no one really receives a “big” moment one would expect an urgent story like this to have. Mara’s character also deserved so much more material than what she was given. Aside from sitting on her porch or providing a few moments of comfort to Will when Joy is out, we don’t see enough of her.
Even though we know what eventually happens in history with the passage of Roe v. Wade, it’s still such a powerful moment when Nagy gathers the Janes and, one by one, they throw a client’s contact card into a fireplace. From that point on, those women didn’t have to resort to secret alleyways and underground abortionists to get the help they needed. With the Jane Collective receiving a much-needed spotlight in 2022, we can only hope that we don’t have to return to those times ever again.
THE FINAL SCORE
THE GOOD – Some stellar performances from Elizabeth Banks, Sigourney Weaver, and Wunmi Mosaku. Real-life motions and fears are captured uncomfortably well by Phyllis Nagy.
THE BAD – The movie loses momentum toward the end, and it lacks the punch a serious subject matter like this should have, opting instead to take a light approach to its storytelling. Some actors are vastly underutilized.
THE OSCARS –
THE FINAL SCORE – 7/10