Women’s reproductive rights are always under attack. Whether it’s the 1960’s like in Call Jane, or here in 2022, where Roe vs. Wade is hanging on by a thread. Those in power are always ready to legislate the female body. It’s an issue that sparks passion on both sides, but it’s also fertile (no pun intended) ground for cinema. Playing at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, Call Jane is the latest movie to tackle the fight for safe and legal abortions. While it might sound like a potentially oppressively dark and depressing film, that’s not what we have here at all.
Call Jane takes a more entertaining and crowd pleasing route than you might expect. It’s actually quite shocking to see how light on its feet the film tends to be, though it does have sporadic heavy moments. It makes for an unusual feeling. You sometimes even feel on edge, worrying if the issue isn’t being properly respected. That’s not the case at all, but the tone is just very different than what the log-line would suggest.
A look at the Jane Collective, we start in 1968, meeting Joy (Elizabeth Banks). A housewife with the seemingly perfect life, she dotes on her lawyer husband Will (Chris Messina) and daughter Charlotte (Grace Edwards). When Joy becomes pregnant again, a medical emergency leads her to learn that having the baby will cost her nothing less than her life. Turned aside for a special dispensation from the medical community to have an abortion, she’s forced to look elsewhere. Dangerous ideas are presented, but then one day, she sees a flyer urging folks in her situation to call Jane.
That call leads Joy to the Jane Collective, an organization run by Virginia (Sigourney Weaver) that aims to provide this service to women in need. Armed with a doctor (Cory Michael Smith) willing to do the procedure, Joy gets her abortion. But, the situation also opens her eyes to how many people need it but are unable to receive one. So, it becomes her mission to help, with results we’re still seeing to this day.
Elizabeth Banks is very good here, with a more serious role than we usually see her get to play with. She has her fast timing, but it’s in service of a woman having an awakening. Banks gets to depict that well, even if the script doesn’t quite dig as deep as it could have. It’s one of her best roles to date, considering her performance. Sigourney Weaver has the prime supporting role, and she seems to be having a good time. Her character could have used more dimensions, but her vibe steals several scenes. Chris Messina, however is wasted, while Grace Edwards and Cory Michael Smith don’t leave too much of an impression. They’re fine, but hardly the focus. Rounding out the cast are John Magaro, Kate Mara, Wunmi Mosaku, Evangeline Young, and more.
Director Phyllis Nagy, along with writers Hayley Schore and Roshan Sethi, find the accessibility in the material. While there’s likely a heavier and more emotionally impactful story to tell, they’ve opted for a bigger tent. Most of the time, it works well. Occasionally, Call Jane seems to be tonally off, but that’s the angle Nagy, Schore, and Sethi wanted to take. Nagy focuses her direction on the central performance by Banks, so if nothing else, you’re watching strong acting at work.
Call Jane is about as mainstream a prestige work as there is this year at Sundance. On the one hand, it probably means that it will find an audience outside of (virtual) Park City. On the other, it does feel like it prevents the film from being the potential Oscar contender that it might aspire to be. The movie plays it safe, and while it’s still a good final product, it’s more Cliff Notes and entertainment than a complete cinematic look at the evolution of the movement.