Producers: Robbie Brenner, David Wulf, Kevin McKeon, Lee Broda, Claude Amadeo and Michael D’Alto Director: Phyllis Nagy Screenplay: Hayley Schore and Roshan Sethi Cast: Elizabeth Banks, Sigourney Weaver, Chris Messina, Kate Mara, Wunmi Mosaku, Cory Michael Smith, Grace Edwards, John Magaro, Geoffrey Cantor, Aida Turturro, Bianca D’Ambrosio, Bruce MacVittie, John Rothman, Rebecca Henderson, Maia Scalia, Sean King and Alison Jaye Distributor: Roadside Attractions
Given that it deals with an underground organization of women trying to arrange abortions for women in pre-Roe vs. Wade America, “Call Jane” often manifests a surprisingly upbeat tone. The camaraderie of the activists is sometimes riven by disagreement—at one point the lone black woman (Wunmi Mosaku) challenges the bases on which those to be helped are selected—but the sense of solidarity among the members is palpable, and there’s an air of exuberance to their efforts except at its darkest moments. And there is no consideration of the moral and ethical issues surrounding abortion—the approach is unambiguously, even proscriptively, pro-choice. Moreover the ending—with the announcement of the Roe decision—is positively triumphant, which, given the Supreme Court’s recent Dobbs decision, now carries an ironic subtext.
That’s one of the narrative problems with the film, which curiously skirts the very real dangers the group faced. There are a few mentions of the need to maintain good relations with “the mob,” for example, but no explanation beyond that, and the one instance in which a policeman (John Magaro) enters the scene turns out to be much less menacing than initially suggested. Indeed, one might think that it represents a rather cheap attempt to engender a bit of suspense.
An even more serious drawback is the decision to strip down what was a collaborative action to something more singular, and to do in a fictional way. At the center of Hayley Schore and Roshan Sethi‘s screenplay is Joy (Elizabeth Banks), the wife of lawyer Will (Chris Messina). They have a teen daughter, Charlotte (Grace Edwards), and are now looking forward to the birth of their second child. Sadly, after she has a fainting spell, Joy undergoes a series of tests and her physician (Geoffrey Cantor) informs the couple that she has a serious heart condition that will endanger her life if she continues the pregnancy. He suggests a therapeutic abortion, but that procedure requires the approval of the hospital board, and the all-male directors, led by two stuffily dismissive types (Bruce MacVittie and John Rothman), summarily decline the request.
Joy decides to seek out an unauthorized abortion entirely on her own, but rejects going through with it at places that look shabby and unsafe. Eventually a street notice takes her to the Janes, where Virginia (Sigourney Weaver, as rough and tough as she is prim and controlled in the recent “The Good House”) presides over an operation that, rather improbably, depends on only one practitioner, a capable but somewhat sleazy fellow named Dean (Cory Michael Smith). Initially apprehensive, Joy finally goes through with the operation, masking it at home as a miscarriage.
Not long afterward Joy receives a call from Virginia, asking her to drive a young woman to the organization’s apartment for the procedure. Joy tries to decline, but feels a sense of obligation, and soon she’s become a full member of the collective, especially good at helping to calm patients down so that Dean can complete their procedures. She eventually becomes convinced she can perform Dean’s function herself, after investigating his background and what the process entails. That’s only the start of the activists becoming even more directly involved as a group.
Meanwhile Joy’s domestic life changes. Will is frustrated by her long absences—supposedly to art classes, though there’s no evidence of her work in them—and is tempted to fill the time with their widowed neighbor Lana (Kate Mara, in a reserved, enigmatic performance). Nor is Charlotte unaware that something’s off. Eventually the visit from that cop brings everything into the open.
But rather than continuing the story from that point, “Call Jane” abruptly shifts to 1973, with Virginia, Joy and their colleagues celebrating the Roe decision. Virginia’s speech mentions raids and Will’s help in mounting legal defenses, but none of that is dramatized. Instead the film just ends with a victory lap that, in view of recent setbacks, has proven to be premature.
That does, however, add a topical twist to the movie, since it’s apparent that the work of the Janes might now have to be resumed in a different context, and in a different way. There are gaps one wishes had been filled—Aida Turturro, for instance, plays a nun who’s a member of the Janes, but she remains a peripheral figure whose habit gets more consideration than her motives, and the Lana subplot feels tacked on for soapy effect, and then is promptly forgotten—but the acting is good overall, with Banks convincingly tremulous as an ordinary housewife caught up in a situation she could never have imagined being thrust into, and gaining confidence and certainty along the way, and Weaver making Virginia a steely figure who’s nonetheless willing to consider criticism of her leadership. (One wishes her background had been given some filling-out). Messina hasn’t much to work with, but struggles to flesh out the shallow conception of Will, and Smith gives Dean a creepiness appropriate to his shady doings; among the other “Janes,” Mosaku stands out for her intensity.
Production designer Jona Tochet and costumer Julie Weiss have worked hard to provide convincing period detail (the story starts in 1968, as an introductory scene referring to the demonstrations at the Democratic Convention of that year establishes); the clothes fit the period, as do the cars scrupulously chosen for the sequences on the road). And while the Hartford, Connecticut locations might not completely persuade us of late sixties Chicago, cinematographer Greta Zozula, employing a gritty, often dark visual palette, makes them fairly plausible. Isabella Summers’ score is spare, and except for the missing pieces in the script, Peter McNulty’s editing is reasonably smooth.
Those who would like a more historically complete—and expansive—treatment of the Jane Collective are directed to the HBO documentary “The Janes,” which of course takes a much more sober approach than Nagy’s film. It makes a useful complement—some would say corrective—and is available on HBO Max. And, of course, anyone wanting a politically and philosophically “balanced” treatment of the continuing debate over abortion should look elsewhere. But on its own, admittedly limited terms, “Call Jane” fills its goal of celebrating the work of a group of women committed to fighting for a right denied them in the sixties—and would undoubtedly feel they must now fight for again.