REVIEW: Call Jane [2022]

Rating: 7 out of 10.
  • Rating: R | Runtime: 121 minutes
    Release Date: October 28th, 2022 (USA)
    Studio: Roadside Attractions
    Director(s): Phyllis Nagy
    Writer(s): Hayley Schore & Roshan Sethi

Everyone hangs up the first time.

We can assume Joy (Elizabeth Banks) and Will (Chris Messina) didn’t plan on having another baby. Fifteen years between child number one (Grace Edwards‘ Charlotte) and two doesn’t scream intent. That fact doesn’t, however, mean that they didn’t want the new baby. They were happy about the pregnancy. They were looking forward to doing it all over again. Unfortunately, Joy’s body couldn’t comply. She started growing faint around ten weeks and ultimately passed out in the kitchen before finally seeing her doctor. He told her that bringing the baby to term would probably kill her and that the only chance they had to save her life was to petition the hospital board for an abortion. The board declined. Joy, like all child-bearing women to the patriarchy, was expendable.

Director Phyllis Nagy and screenwriters Hayley Schore and Roshan Sethi do a great job setting the stage for what that refusal meant to a woman in the 1960s. Their film Call Jane shows the hoops Joy would need to jump through just to hope for a chance at what was a life-saving procedure for her and how frustrating and dehumanizing the whole song and dance proved. The humor used to portray it can perhaps seem off-putting at times considering the severity of the situation (the illegal clinic’s doorman putting his arms out with incredulity when Joy runs off scared is a bit much), but it is consistent with the tone that follows once Joy serendipitously sees a phone number for “Jane” at a bus stop in Wicker Park.

Where the system was failing these women, an organization known as the Jane Collective worked to pick up the slack. Led by an activist named Virginia (Sigourney Weaver), the group gave women with nowhere else to go a place to exercise autonomy over their bodies. It wasn’t perfect—she had to haggle with the mob for protection and rent, turn away poor patients who couldn’t afford her doctor’s (Cory Michael Smith‘s Dean) exorbitant fee, and was predominantly white save the never-letting-them-forget-it Gwen (Wunmi Mosaku)—but it was safe, secure, and necessary. And, as an opening scene juxtaposing suburban affluence opposite the Yippies via a gala event becoming the site of a protest teases, Joy’s internal conflict was pushing her towards wanting to help change the world.

The story is therefore less about the group than a homemaker who always had ability if not aspirations for more (Will has used her editing prowess for his law briefs since college) gradually allowing herself to see it through. All the usual tropes are there from Joy lying to her husband about attending “art class” when volunteering with the Janes to Charlotte wondering if mom is having an affair to Will growing tired of coming home to frozen meals. These scenarios provide fodder for as much humor as suspense with next door neighbor Lana (Kate Mara) supplying a best friend’s shoulder (for Joy), potential adulterer (for Will), and sympathetic ear about having one’s life turned upside down (her husband had recently died) before the truth is eventually exposed.

Until then, we watch Joy grow within the group while also finding ways to help the group grow too. Nagy and company do their best to bring up other parallel issues like racial equality, poverty, etc. as well, augmenting and diversifying the politics around women’s rights while forcing Virginia to think outside the box to help more than just those women who have the money to keep Dean happy. And as Joy gets more involved, she lets curiosity push her towards a logical yet implausible (due to the social conditioning women were struggling to conquer) solution. Why not learn to do the procedure themselves? If Joy could ease a patient’s nerves simply by being a woman inside the operating room, why not completely remove men from the equation?

By empowering herself because of her own harrowing ordeal at the hands of an anti-abortion medical establishment in a pre-Roe v Wade America, Joy inevitably empowers this collective of feminists to think bigger than they already were. The journey can feel superficial at times as it rushes through the evolution she’s spearheading (the two-hour runtime can’t help as a third of it is crucially due to how exacting and thorough Nagy portrays Joy’s abortion to ensure audiences experience the full scope of what’s happening), but Banks, Weaver, Messina, and Mosaku deliver memorably emotive performances to pick up the slack and inject the complexity necessary to bolster its streamlined plot. As Joy becomes more confident and unyielding, we can’t help but get swept away by the drama.

A documentary such as The Janes probably does a better job providing the details of what Jane was (I haven’t seen it), but you can’t deny the power of a fictionalized narrative opening the door on an historical topic like this. What it lacks in historical objectivity, it makes up for with humanity. Joy doesn’t have to prove a more intriguing subject than the group itself. She must only be the conduit into its era with whom we can relate and see ourselves in. An organization such as Jane finds success precisely because it’s built and sustained by regular people who have a vested and personal interest in its work. Joy wasn’t an activist until she was. Nothing radicalizes you faster than a system actively stealing your voice.

[1] Elizabeth Banks in CALL JANE Photo Credit: Wilson Webb Courtesy of Roadside Attractions
[2] Elizabeth Banks and Sigourney Weaver in CALL JANE Photo Credit: Wilson Webb Courtesy of Roadside Attractions
[3] Elizabeth Banks in CALL JANE Photo Credit: Wilson Webb Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

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