You may have already heard of the case of Brittney Poolaw, the 21-year-old Comanche Nation member who, in October 2021, was convicted of first-degree manslaughter for her miscarriage. You may already be following persistent threats against Roe vs. Wade introduced in Texas, Alabama, Mississippi and sixteen other states. You may be too familiar with the rhetoric we already live in The Handmaid’s Tale. Amid such a panicked environment and an administration allergic to the word “abortion,” a drama about a real Chicago collective, The Janes (officially known as the Abortion Counseling Service of Women’s Liberation) who helped women to end their unwanted pregnancies in the 1960s, seems quite topical. Carried by a convincing dramatic turn of Elizabeth Banks, Call Jane is a well-meaning and noticeably lavish addition to the lore of these networks, but is rendered somewhat hypocritical by the choice of the composite woman on whom it centers its fable.
Directed by Phyllis Nagy (screenwriter of the sultry classic Carol), the script by Hayley Schore and Roshan Sethi focuses on Joy Griffin (Banks), a happy housewife and wife of criminal lawyer Will (Chris Messina), and mother of 15-year-old ultra-precocious and protected Charlotte. (a talented but wildly mature Grace Edwards). When Joy’s pregnancy threatens her own life, signified by a heart condition causing tinnitus, she must seek a pregnancy termination. Nagy, with the help of cinematographer Greta Zozula and composer Isabella Summers, creates an atmosphere of confusion and frustration as Joy’s petition to a men’s hospital board is summarily denied, and she is instead advised to plead insanity or fall down a flight of stairs.
Based on her husband’s obvious reluctance and the hope that she might fall into the 50% case that could survive a full-term pregnancy, Joy instead turns to the looming threat of our present time: the return dangerous clandestine abortion. After forging her husband’s signature and cashing a check for $1,000 in a thrilling sequence that resembles a bank robbery, she enters the long, dark hallway of an obviously seedy clinic, and quickly panics and flees to the amid coughing patients and clanking medical equipment. . When she sees a flyer that encourages anyone who is pregnant and anxious to “CALL JANE”, her transformation into a clandestine abortionist begins.
Despite the expected urgency of a crucial time plot, Call Jane drags on to the point where Joy decides to pick up the phone to do (which is for her) the unthinkable. Thankfully, there are some real engaging moments despite its uneven pacing, aided by an excellent soundtrack that externalizes much of Joy’s inner turmoil. Banks imbues Joy with a suppressed curiosity and obvious intelligence that emerges in those moments of focus. Listening to her daughter’s Lou Reed record, editing her husband’s memoir and later embarking on her self-taught medical training, Joy is singular – someone beyond the quaint era of the housewife whose she remained mostly satisfied for so long.
Therein lies the crux of the film’s problem: joy is special. Joy is intelligent and healthy. Joy is white, stable, and able to access a healthy bank account. Joy is the chosen one, and she will be fine. Making a movie with today’s statistical knowledge – that poor, indigenous and black pregnant women are disproportionately affected and most at risk of being criminalized by abortion bans – and still choose to enter into this world through the lens of a fictional traditionalist turned Democrat by herself unfortunate circumstances, tones down the film’s otherwise perfect setup for speed.
There’s a pivotal moment in the film, which ultimately leads to Joy becoming the main provider of the abortion procedure, which epitomizes this stumble. Gwen (Wunmi Mosaku), the only black woman in the Janes and the only black actor with spoken lines in Call Jane, chastises blunt-style community organizer Gloria Steinem of Sigourney Weaver, Virginia, for not working hard enough to provide affordable care, thus excluding black women from their clientele. Gwen also points out that Virginia missed her meetings with other black organizations, including the Panthers and the Black Feminist Alliance, a fatality in Gwen’s eyes and a guarantee to Virginia.
The camera is the least confident viewer in this scene, shifting from an impassioned Gwen to Virginia as Virginia admits she’s been dismissive, but what can they do? Virginia eventually rectifies the situation through a convoluted game of strip-bluffing with Surgeon Dean (a suitably skeevy Cory Michael Smith) that culminates in the most second-wave feminist “gotcha” filmed in recent memory. She beats him up, making him agree to two free abortion procedures a week. These, at first, should be reserved for “sisters”, but eventually become hit and miss after the demand for free procedures skyrockets. The script seems to take a stand – that The Janes and organizations like them systematically exclude black women – then quickly backtracks with its reliance on white saviorism, as well as its declaration of a Jane that “if he does [Gwen] feel better,” white women are also stiffened by the high cost of their exploitative doctor. The film’s typical rushed and enjoyable historical fiction ending is a similar piece of leveling mythology.
Another milestone occurs when the film challenges Joy’s moralization by placing a recurring patient in her path: a young woman, Sandra (Alison Jaye), who is unapologetic for her unprotected sex and flippant about the price and the procedure. While the first encounter comes as a finger pointing to Joy’s preconceptions of who should be allowed to get an abortion and what they should be allowed to feel, the second erases Sandra’s facade. In the name of humanization, he plays a sour note. Anyone who needs an abortion should be able to get one, but deep down, everyone must also be made morally good by their helplessness in the face of an unjust legal system. A decision that reveals an ideal audience: women like Joy, who must first worry about themselves and pity others before recognizing bodily autonomy as an inalienable right.
Finally it is a pity that Call Jane can’t decide if it’s a character study or a motion study, as it’s a visual delight that succeeds on tiptoe back and forth before retracting on its most conflicting 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 watchful eye it’s a message of interest audience better looking than most. Following the 49th anniversary of Roe vs. Wade, however, it is disappointing that Call Jane is afraid of being anything other than acceptable to its largest, whitest audience.
Director: Phyllis Nagy
Writer: Hayley Schore, Roshan Sethi
With :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, curator, and GLAAD-awarded queer critic. Their words about feelings and queer films appear in Autostraddle, The movie scene and Movie credit, among others, and they write an exciting newsletter about girls and gays who make movies worth watching. You can invoke him in yodeling”Desert Hearts has been stolen!” into the sunset.