Contemporary events can prove friend or foe to historical dramas that tackle subjects on which the American political apparatus has not yet had, and never will have, a final say. Filmed before the U.S. Supreme Court overturned its own 1973 ruling on Roe v. Wade — and ended federal protection of a woman’s choice to abort her pregnancy — Call Jane lands somewhere in between those two extremes.
Director Phyllis Nagy’s film takes its title from the call to action printed on grassroots flyers that, from 1968 to 1973, promoted the work of the Jane Collective — an underground group cultivated by female activists to circumvent national law to provide abortions for women. The procedure cost $600, payable in cash and performed at secret locations rented from mobsters to which patients were brought wearing blindfolds. At the time, the alternatives were long-shot amnesty from hospital boards to approve “therapeutic termination,” psychiatrists signing off on expectant mothers’ suicidal thoughts to gain an exemption and unsanitary back-room procedures that were quite often lethal. Oh, and one more: “Just fall down a staircase,” one woman tells suburban Chicago housewife Joy Griffin (Elizabeth Banks). “It worked for me.”
Joy does consider this drastic measure, however briefly, as a last resort to resolve a pregnancy that’s likely to kill her if brought to term. She’s already suffering congestive heart failure in the first trimester, and her obstetrician says the only cure is to “not be pregnant.” After spotting a Jane Collective flyer while fleeing a back-room option, Joy finds a community of compassionate women, an outlet to act on her obligation toward a positive role in America’s shifting society, and, eventually, an inspirational new calling she would have never believed possible.
Call Jane is a generally effective empowerment story, buoyed by the most bountiful lead role Banks has booked in her nearly 25-year career. Joy’s reaction to her congestive heart failure diagnosis is nothing less than resignation to her death. After all, Joy is fighting a system that cares little about whether she survives as long as the baby has a chance. “I have so much more to do,” Joy tells her lawyer husband, Will (Chris Messina). It’s an empty statement to which her experience with the Jane Collective, first as a customer and then as a steward of its mission, will give teeth. Although the direction from Nagy (an Oscar-nominated screenwriter for 2015’s Carol) could otherwise best be described as functional, Call Jane’s opening sequence (where Joy glimpses protests at what’s presumably the 1968 Democratic National Convention) puts a pealing bell of purpose in Joy’s ear and lets it ring and resonate for the run of the story.
The screenplay from Hayley Schore and Roshan Sethi also wisely recognizes a common ground of urban radicalism and suburban regulation — the often silent sort of secret-handshake agreements among women in each community that sustain the system. Banks latches onto it, too, as Joy draws on a pleasant persistence she’s cultivated at home into tentative steps toward triumph in ways that benefit her and the hundreds of women she meets.
While there is not as robust a double act as you’d expect from pairing Banks with Sigourney Weaver — as Virginia, a lifelong activist for whom the Jane Collective is the latest cause — the two generate an engaging tentative, and often tense, detente between homemaker and troublemaker. Beyond that, the characters of the Jane Collective often feel like placeholders.
As Gwen, a Black woman who is Joy’s driver to her abortion, Wunmi Mosaku (Loki) interrogates the imbalance of equity for Jane Collective services relative to a mother’s race and her ability to pay … but only in one brief scene. As Virginia pleads with Gwen not to make it about race, you sense Schore and Sethi building an escape hatch to evade a tougher side of this tale, which they mostly have — at least as a meaningful counterpoint to Joy, for whom financial access is not an obstacle.
This conversation does, however, initiate a sly, wily and unexpected encounter between Weaver and Cory Michael Smith as Dean, the Jane Collective’s “capitalist pig” doctor who pockets most of the money. Virginia flirtatiously facilitates Dean’s willingness to perform more free procedures for the indigent in need. After Banks, Smith delivers the second strongest turn in Call Jane, one that believably shifts from arrogance to altruism and assistance, often within milliseconds.
This bit between Virginia and Dean represents the film’s most confident counterpoint of comic levity. It is otherwise often carried along by overly familiar fish-out-of-water funny business with Joy (e.g., investigating her genital anatomy to the tune of Malvina Reynolds’ “What’s Goin’ On Down There?” or smoking marijuana for the first time). The screenplay also tends to paper over just how much time is passing here, especially relative to the rigors of Joy’s increased responsibilities within the collective.
A much bigger problem is clumsiness concerning the other Griffins (Will and teenage daughter Charlotte, played by Grace Edwards) and Lana (Kate Mara), a next-door neighbor numbed by her husband’s unexpected death. Early on, Lana describes her life as an incomplete thought, unfortunate foreshadowing for yet another role that doesn’t let Mara contribute something more meaningful. Meanwhile, Messina and Edwards largely fade into the background after the first act, which betrays their forceful work in forging a family unit of care and concern for Joy.
There’s also a mad rush to a 1973 ending, one largely relegating the Jane Collective’s eventual raid by police and subsequent court case to several seconds of voiceover and montage. Whether a version once existed with more focus on that is anyone’s guess. But it’s easy to understand why Nagy and company wouldn’t want to overly revel in that eventual victory at the moment.
Instead, Call Jane concludes with a symbolic burning of cards curated by the collective — a sustained shot of flame that perhaps felt cleansing several months ago but now feels like a more consumptive conflagration. It’s a sobering, relevant reminder of the shameful way that America’s Republican party continues to regard women and their reproductive rights as pawns for protean political games. But it’s also not quite the rallying cry that the fight rages on, either. In ways for which it is both faultless and culpable, Call Jane perhaps burns more lukewarm about its heated topic than it could have.