Consider these scenarios: A woman who is unable to get an abortion even though she has a life-threatening condition because of her pregnancy. Women banding together to run underground abortion clinics because the procedure is illegal in their city or state. Women who are willing to have someone administer it without formal medical training because there is no other choice. Those storylines fuel “Call Jane,” a drama set in 1968, but depending on the outcome of several current cases at the U.S. Supreme Court, could easily be a horrifying window into the future.
A premiere selection at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, Phyllis Nagy’s feature directorial debut begins with Joy (Elizabeth Banks), a homemaker in the Chicago suburbs whose life is seemingly pitch-perfect. Her husband, Will (Chris Messina, solid), is rising up the executive ladder at his law firm and her daughter, Charlotte (Grace Edwards), is a blossoming young woman at the age of 15. After a fainting spell, the pregnant Joy is rushed to the hospital, where her doctor discovers she has a heart issue that will require an abortion to ensure her own safety. When Joy, Will, and her doctor petition the board of the hospital to grant an exception to their no-abortion policy, they are shocked that just a 50/50 survival rate is enough to turn down her request. Taking matters into her own hands, Joy begins searching for someone to administer the procedure. After abandoning an attempt at a shady operation, she sees a signposting that offers pregnancy help at the touch of a dial. When Joy “calls Jane,” her life is changed forever.
Despite the lack of a “based on” or “inspired by a true story” title card, much of “Call Jane” is inspired by true-life experiences. Screenwriters Hayley Schore and Roshan Sethi’s Blacklist selected script is primarily fictional, but the secret clinics in the Chicago area were quite real and are also the subject of “The Janes,” a documentary also premiering at the festival. Still, many will be shocked by Joy’s involvement in the operation run by another fictional character, Virginia (Sigourney Weaver, having a blast). But, again, the efforts of these women were quite real and, thankfully, quite successful until the landmark Roe v. Wade ruling in 1973.
Her first directorial effort since her 2005 HBO movie “Mrs. Harris,” Nagy’s filmmaking is often impressively inspired. She opens the film with a long, continuous shot of a decked-out Joy walking through a decadent downtown hotel lobby only to be distracted by the police car lights signaling the arrival of “Yippie” protestors outside. And her focus on Joy’s inherent fear during her abortion procedure – at the hands of what appears to be a cold-hearted and off-kilter doctor (Cory Michael Smith, standout) – is impressively subtle, yet effective. Unfortunately, what hinders the film’s overall impact is a lack of tension from Schore and Sethi’s screenplay.
Joy keeps her involvement with the Call Jane operation a secret from her family and close neighbor Lana (Kate Mara, very good), insisting she’s spending her free time taking long art classes. Even with their passive inquiries to what is she is really up to, there never seems to be any genuine fear of Joy being found out. And even if she was, Will is presented as level-headed and nice a guy as possible (even if he’s a Republican who voted for Nixon). And, despite her age, Charlotte often seems smarter than everyone else in the room. The film also has a predictable, tangential storyline centered on Lana and Will that is supposed to evoke additional tension but seems superfluous in context.
Despite those narrative pitfalls, when the film works, it’s often because Banks confidently carries so much of it on her own shoulders. Dramatic roles are increasingly few and far between for the busy actress and filmmaker, but this is yet another performance of sheer charisma and depth that demands more attention from those in the know. We shouldn’t have to wait every eight years for Banks to deservedly step into a non-comedic leading role.
At one point in the film, a key volunteer, Gwen (Wunmi Mosaku, more please), has an angry debate with Virginia over the organization’s policies disenfranchising black women who can’t afford their services. It’s a conversation that very much resonates on a number of levels today but gets somewhat glossed over as the film’s priority is primarily Joy’s journey. It’s a moment that makes you wonder if the entire endeavor would be more impactful if the film was decidedly more political than it is. Despite those lingering questions, “Call Jane” is still a period drama that will shock and scare viewers more than entertain them, and perhaps that’s the point. [B-/C+]