Timing is everything, as they say, a tired phrase given fresh relevance in Phyllis Nagy’s restrained yet inspiring Call Jane, based on the true story of an underground network of Chicago activists in the late ’60s and early ’70s who provided safe abortions for thousands of women back when the procedure was often a felony offense. When the film’s script, written by Hayley Schore and Roshan Sethi, earned a spot among the year’s best unproduced screenplays on the 2017 Black List, Roe v. Wade was the law of the land. With the film’s 2022 release upon us, Roe v. Wade is dead, potentially sending abortion-seeking women back to illegal and possibly dangerous clinics to exercise free will over their bodies. So while a career-best performance by Elizabeth Banks and a spicy, Earth Mother turn by Sigourney Weaver are more than enough reasons to see Call Janehistory and timing have turned a feminist cry from a bygone era into a (hopefully not) prescient look into the future.
A first-time feature director, Nagy is best known as the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of 2015 Carol. Call Jane does not have the cool, pristine lines of that Todd Haynes drama, but she obviously took something from it. Operating at an involving and meticulous simmer more than an angry and indignant boil, Call Jane takes us through the process of acquiring an unlawful abortion via the Jane Collective, one that’s not only highly personal, but highly secretive: passwords, blindfolds, and cash-stuffed envelopes are the tools of the trade and Nagy spares little in showing us the dank, makeshift medical room where the infectious waste trash can is as dirty as the walls.
Cinematographer Greta Zozula’s Super 16 camera roams around the worn tables and ratty couches of the collective’s modest headquarters while an energetic and motivated array of women debate which applicant should be next in line. The Janes include a nun and, most prominently, Gwen (a fine Wunmi Mosaku), who provides one of the only moments of testy, interpersonal conflict when she notes how little they help Black women.
Specifically on the receiving end of that accusation is the organization’s leader, Virginia, well-played by Weaver as an all-business, Gloria Steinem-esque protest veteran caring enough to offer her patients post-abortion spaghetti. There is some vague talk of the Collective being protected by the mob; otherwise, the main downside of Nagy’s measured approach is that there is never any danger of the walls closing in on Virginia’s illegal operation. All things considered, it seems to run rather smoothly, which is less a testament to her leadership than a knock on the film’s refined style. Even if they disbanded on their own in 1973, shortly after the passing of Roe v. Wade, the constant threat of discovery would have provided an ominous sense of risk.
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Instead, the risk is taken in the casting. The story of The Janes is told through the eyes of a rich, white housewife named Joy (Banks), not Virginia nor someone trying to scrounge up a prohibitive $600 for the group’s services. But it works, mostly because Banks is great, her suburban smile slowly curling downward into a look of determination and rediscovered purpose as she goes from sheltered middle-class conservative to well-coiffed resistance fighter awakened to the struggles of women at the mercy of a male-dominated power structure. It’s that patriarchal system that is the film’s real villain, which Nagy finds crafty ways to convey, as when Joy’s widowed neighbor Lana (Kate Mara, doing a lot with a little) turns to gin and prescription drugs because there’s suddenly no man in the house . Nagy especially stacks the deck against Joy in ways that would seem mustache-twirling if they weren’t so true to the era.
Joy begins to “feel the shifting current” after witnessing a Yippie demonstration during the 1968 Democratic National Convention. Pregnant for the second time with her attorney husband, Will (Chris Messina, solid), Joy’s burgeoning revolutionary spirit comes home when she’s informed that she only has a 50/50 chance of surviving the pregnancy. In the film’s most anger-inducing scene, Joy is reduced to pleading with a hospital boardroom filled with smug middle-aged men for permission to receive a “therapeutic termination.” They talk about her like she’s not even there and, after denying her request, exchange sanctimonious “we showed her” smirks.
With no viable options remaining, Joy calls the number she sees on a flier and soon finds herself in the protective enclave of the Jane Collective. Nagy’s depiction of Joy’s abortion manages to be both tasteful and unsparing. She keeps the camera tight as Dean (a terrific Cory Michael Smith), the creepy, self-assured, “capitalist pig” doctor takes Joy step-by-step through a procedure marked by imposing metal instruments and sweat-inducing fear. With his serial killer bowl cut and condescending swagger, Dean is the one character who provides a palpable sense of mystery. And the movie needs it. As Joy’s activist spark fully ignites, and she performs increasingly more complicated tasks for the organization, the movie settles into predictability. She chalks up her time away from home as being in “art class,” which only works because Will is so conveniently oblivious, and his brief flirtation with a neighbor offers an unnecessary detour.
Call Jane is a feminist work told with straight-arrow purpose. It assumes that the slightest melodrama would devalue the sacrifices these women made and the community they created. If that’s a miscalculation, the movie is still effective and enlightening—and a worthy companion to 2022’s The Janes, an excellent nonfiction documentary on this remarkable cooperative. Nagy’s dramatization, by virtue of its awards-possible turn by Banks, will get more attention. But any film that reminds the culture at large that a woman’s agency is once again under threat by our government is a step in the right direction.