Abortion Drama Call Jane Undermines Its Own Political Discussion and Powerful PerformancesMovies Reviews Sundance 2022
This review originally ran as part of Paste’s 2022 Sundance coverage.
You may have already heard of the case of Brittney Poolaw, the 21-year-old member of the Comanche Nation who, in October of 2021, was convicted of first-degree manslaughter for her miscarriage. You may already be following the continued threats to Roe v. Wade introduced in Texas, Alabama, Mississippi and sixteen other states. You may be overly familiar with the rhetoric that we’re already living in The Handmaid’s Tale. In the midst of such a panicked environment and an administration that has an allergy to the word “abortion,” a drama about a real Chicago collective, The Janes (officially known as Abortion Counseling Service of Women’s Liberation) that helped women end their unwanted pregnancies during the 1960s, seems entirely relevant. Buoyed by a convincing dramatic turn from Elizabeth Banks, Call Jane is a well meaning, appreciably sumptuous addition to the lore of these networks, but is made somewhat disingenuous by the choice of composite woman on which it centers its fable.
Directed by Phyllis Nagy (screenwriter of sensual classic Carol), Hayley Schore and Roshan Sethi’s script focuses on Joy Griffin (Banks), a happy homemaker and wife to upwardly mobile criminal lawyer Will (Chris Messina), and mother to ultra-precocious, sheltered fifteen-year-old Charlotte (a talented but wildly mature Grace Edwards). When Joy’s pregnancy threatens her own life, signified by a tinnitus-inducing heart condition, she must seek out a termination. Nagy, with the help of cinematographer Greta Zozula and composer Isabella Summers, crafts an atmosphere of confusion and frustration as Joy’s petition to a male hospital board is summarily denied, and she’s instead given the advice to either plead insanity, or fall down a staircase.
Based on her husband’s obvious reticence and hope that she may fall into the 50% of cases who might survive a full-term pregnancy, Joy instead turns to the looming threat of our current times: the return of the dangerous, back-alley abortion. After forging her husband’s signature and cashing a $1,000 check in a thrilling sequence that plays like a bank heist, she enters the long, dark hallway of an obviously seedy clinic, and promptly panics and runs away amidst the coughing of patients and clattering of medical equipment. When she spies a flier that encourages any pregnant and anxious person to “CALL JANE,” her transformation to underground abortionist begins.
Despite the urgency expected from a crucial time-based plot, Call Jane drags up to and past the point that Joy decides to pick up the telephone to do (what is to her) the unthinkable. Thankfully, there are some real moments of engagement despite its uneven pace, helped by an excellent soundtrack that externalizes so much of Joy’s inner turmoil. Banks imbues Joy with a stifled curiosity and obvious intelligence that emerges in these focused moments. Listening to her daughter’s Lou Reed record, editing her husband’s briefs, and later embarking on her self-taught medical training, Joy is singular—someone beyond the picturesque housewife era she’s remained mostly satisfied in for so long.
Therein lies the crux of the film’s problem: Joy is special. Joy is smart and wholesome. Joy is white, and stable, and able to access a healthy bank account. Joy is the chosen one, and she’s going to be fine. Making a film with today’s statistical knowledge—that poor Indigenous and Black pregnant people are disproportionately affected by, and most at risk of being criminalized by abortion bans—and still choosing to enter this world through the lens of a fictional traditionalist turned democrat by her own unfortunate circumstances, dampens the film’s otherwise perfect setup for timeliness.
There’s a pivotal moment in the film, which eventually leads to Joy becoming the main provider of the abortion procedure, that embodies this stumble. Gwen (Wunmi Mosaku), the only Black woman in the Janes, and the only Black actor with any spoken lines in Call Jane, chides Sigourney Weaver’s brusque Gloria Steinem-styled community organizer Virginia for not working hard enough to provide care at a lower cost, therefore excluding Black women from their clientele. Gwen also points out that Virginia fumbled her meetings with other Black organizations, including the Panthers and the Black Feminist Alliance, an inevitability in Gwen’s eyes, and a piece of collateral in Virginia’s.
The camera is the least confident spectator in this scene, swinging from an impassioned Gwen to Virginia as Virginia concedes that she’s been dismissive—but what can they do? Virginia eventually rectifies the situation through a convoluted game of strip-bluffing with monetarily driven surgeon Dean (an appropriately skeevy Cory Michael Smith) that culminates in the most second-wave feminist “gotcha” put to film in recent memory. She bests him, making him to agree to two free abortion procedures per week. These, at first, are to be reserved for “sisters,” but eventually become randomized after demand for free procedures skyrockets. The script seems to take a stand—that The Janes and organizations like them systemically exclude Black women—then quickly backpedals with its reliance on white saviorism, as well as its declaration from a Jane that “if it makes [Gwen] feel better,” white women are also getting stiffed by their exploitative doctor’s steep cost. The film’s rushed, feel-good historical fiction-typical ending is a similar piece of leveling mythology.
Another one-two step occurs when the film challenges Joy’s moralizing by placing a repeat patient in her path: a young woman, Sandra (Alison Jaye), who is unapologetic about her unprotected sex and flippant toward the price and procedure. While the first encounter stands as a finger-wag toward Joy’s preconceptions of who should be allowed to secure an abortion and what they should be allowed to feel, the second chips away at Sandra’s façade. In the name of humanizing, it plays a sour note. Everyone who needs an abortion should be able to get one, but at their core, everyone must also be rendered morally good by their helplessness in the face of an unfair legal system. It’s a decision that reveals an ideal audience: women like Joy, who must first feel worried for themselves and sorry for others before acknowledging bodily autonomy as an inalienable right.
Ultimately, it’s unfortunate that Call Jane can’t decide whether it’s a character study or the study of a movement, as it’s a visual pleasure that successfully tiptoes in both directions before retracting its more confrontational opinions. Banks, Mosaku, Scott and most of the ensemble contribute worthy performances, much of the medical history is detailed and fascinating, and under Nagy’s careful eye it’s a better-looking PSA than most. On heels of the 49th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, however, it’s disappointing that Call Jane is afraid to be anything other than palatable to its widest and whitest audience.
Director: Phyllis Nagy
Writer: Hayley Schore, Roshan Sethi
Starring:Elizabeth Banks, Sigourney Weaver, Chris Messina, Kate Mara, Wunmi Mosaku, Cory Michael Smith
Release Date: January 21, 2022 (Sundance)
Shayna Maci Warner (@bernieteeters) is a Brooklyn-based film programmer, preservationist and GLAAD-awarded critical queer. Their words on queer feelings and films appear in Autostraddle, The Film Stage and Film Cred, among others, and they write a horny newsletter about the girls and gays that make movies worth watching. You can summon her by yodeling “Desert Hearts was robbed!” into the sunset.