Call Jane Review | Busy Signals

by Andrew Parker

The period drama Call Jane should be frighteningly timely, given that the subject matter has become highly relevant and topical again, but instead it’s little more than a well-meaning misfire that tries and fails to make any meaningful impact. Call Jane – directed by Phyllis Nagy, best known as the writer of Todd Haynes’ Carol – isn’t a bad film by any stretch, but it’s underwhelming and occasionally frustrating. It tries to be a character piece rather than a hard and fast historical drama, which would be fine if the weight of said history didn’t loom so large over the project.

Elizabeth Banks stars as Joy, a middle aged housewife living in the Chicago area with her lawyer husband (Chris Messina) and teenage daughter (Grace Edwards) in 1968. After some nagging health problems start to pose noticeable discomfort and difficulty, Joy learns that she’s pregnant. Although her doctor informs Joy that carrying the baby to term could result in death, she’s unable to gain access to a legal, safe abortion. Desperate and running out of options, Joy turns to a group of “Janes,” people who – for a fee – bring women to and from a place where a doctor will perform the procedure with no questions asked. Although grateful for access to such life saving measures, Joy is hesitant to heed the request of the program’s leader (Sigourney Weaver) to help other women in their similar time of need.

Instead of taking a deep dive into the struggle for the right to safe abortions in the pre-Roe vs. Wade era, Call Jane focuses all of its energy and resources onto one woman’s personal experiences. Nagy – delivering her first theatrically released feature as a director – struggles to keep Joy’s narrative and the historically fraught time period balanced and aligned. Too often, the details of Joy’s life are average and uninteresting, and less compelling than the larger picture that exists outside the frame. There are plenty of great moments in Nagy’s film, but lot of Call Jane is low stakes, melodramatic, and cluttered.

Elizabeth Banks is underrated as a dramatic performer, and Call Jane offers a wonderful showcase for her talents. It also arguably gives Banks too much and too little to work with at the same time. With the exception of facing down near certain death and becoming an unlikely activist on the other side of it, Joy isn’t that magnetic of a personality, especially when placed into contrast with the characters around her at the Janes’ crisis centre. Weaver delivers a great performance as the centre’s tough talking leader, Virginia, and any scenes that she shares with Banks are some of the best moments in the film. Similarly, Wunmi Mosaku makes a huge impression as the first activist Joy meets; a voice for all those who remain curiously voiceless throughout the remainder of Call Jane.

For all of its obvious merits, Call Jane suffers from having a highly privileged perspective. I’m not saying that to infer that Nagy’s work is outright problematic, but rather that the film itself is constantly hinting at stories far more interesting than Joy’s. There’s a fascinating thread revolving around the centre’s reliance on a chauvinist quack (Cory Michael Smith) to perform the abortions. Virginia and the doctor always hint about how they have to constantly pay off the mob to stay in business. Centre members are forced into philosophical arguments about which potential clients who can’t pay should be accepted over others. There’s lip service paid towards how people of colour and the impoverished have it tougher than well connected white women, but that’s such a passing blip that it makes no impact. Briefly people broach the issue of religious fuelled guilt and the rights of rape victims, but again, it’s all glossed over in the blink of an eye. Perhaps worst of all, outside of one really good scene where a police detective pays Joy a call at her house, Call Jane never convinces the viewer that what these women were doing was dangerous. It definitely was, and the film botches any and every chance to showcase genuine bravery in the face of certain imprisonment and possibly worse fates beyond that.

That’s because – for better or worse – Nagy and the filmmaking team find Joy to be a more compelling character to act as a window into this changing world. It’s a glaring miscalculation, and any of the other threads introduced are discarded so willfully. Almost anything else in here would make for a more interesting and engaging focal point, and in a better film, Joy would be a side character, not the lead. So much energy is expended throughout Call Jane depicting Joy’s fracturing relationship to her sullen husband and daughter – neither of whom know about Joy’s activism – that there’s little time to focus on anything besides the most immediately obvious connections. (And the less said about a woefully misused Kate Mara in possibly the most thankless role of the year as Joy’s concerned neighbour, the better.) The film would be far worse if the film didn’t mention the myriad reasons why access to abortion is so important in the first place, but the little time that’s granted to anything other than the life of a slowly awakening suburban PTA member is thin and hollow in comparison.

Visually, Call Jane is just as accomplished and scattered at the same time. The attention to period detail is outstanding right from the opening scene, set on the night of the 1968 Democratic National Committee debacle. The cinematography is often thoughtful and challenging, most notably during Joy’s unflinching abortion scene, the most tense moment in the entire film. But this still looks like something that has been sanitized for mass viewer consumption. People react (or perhaps overreact) to things that seem horrific, when really they appear rather tame and clean. The style is as unbalanced as the material.

At a time when the rights of women and those identify similarly are once again under attack in the United States, Call Jane should hit a lot harder than this. Instead of viscerally speaking to a larger struggle and a wider range of experiences, it focuses on something that’s all too familiar and unexceptional. While Nagy probably didn’t know what was on the horizon while Call Jane was in production, it also causes the film’s now congratulatory ending to appear out dated and quaint before the thing has been released. It’s not a great look, but it’s clearly made with best intentions and boasts good performances. It’s not a failure, but a missed opportunity for greatness.

Call Jane opens in select cities on Friday, October 28, 2022.

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