It’s been said that fear is the ultimate motivator, which is the likely explanation as to why “issue” films are always so dark and depressing. Well, it’s also probably because “issue” films are also usually discussing a painful reality about society or the world that would be difficult or at least awkward to address with an upbeat tone. Which is why Phyllis Nagy’s Call Jane, making its premiere at Sundance Film Festival, is such a strange experience indeed.
Based on a true story, Call Jane stars Elizabeth Banks as Joy, a fictional middle-class suburban Chicago housewife in 1968 who is happily expecting their second child with her husband Will, played by Chris Messina. Complications with the pregnancy develop, and the doctor reveals to Joy and Will that the only way to save Joy’s life is “to not be pregnant anymore.” But it’s five years before Roe v Wade, and abortion is illegal, so their only option is to petition the board of the hospital to terminate the pregnancy, which they decline to do. It is naturally infuriating, but made even more so by Nagy’s casual and breezy handling of it, pedaling the fatally misogynistic overtones with an “oh well” surrender.
But the point quickly is revealed that Joy does not surrender. Seeing her only option to save her life is to visit an illegal abortion backroom in the bad part of town, she forges her husband’s signature to get cash and goes across the tracks to a place so comically creepy, it comes with graffiti and pervy catcalls for added effect. She thinks better of it and runs out of there, just in time to be caught in a torrential downpour, of course. But, as she’s huddled at the bus stop, she notices a post that says, “Pregnant? Anxious? Scared? Call Jane” with a phone number. When she calls, the person on the other end of the line arranges for Joy to be picked up and driven, blindfolded, to a mysterious place, where she is led into a room and told the doctor “Is the best we have.” The doctor proceeds to give her an abortion, talking her through it in a very matter-of-fact but professional way. There is little pain and it feels safe and, before she knows it, it’s over and she’s driven to another place, where she is welcomed by a group of women who insist on feeding her and making her rest a bit before going home. It turns out these women are all part of an underground group who help women get abortions, led by activist feminist Virginia, played by Sigourney Weaver.
Joy is so impressed with the care provided by these women that she becomes a volunteer herself, getting more and more involved, spending more and more time with them, telling her family she’s at art class, so they don’t get suspicious. She eventually starts being in the room with the women, offering support during the procedure and even learns how to do the procedures herself, a casual plot point that is glossed over, despite its potentially fatal consequences.
It’s truly bizarre how some serious issues are addresses with a casual shrug. Joy’s personal story is told against a backdrop of the dire legal and medical consequences that were present for women before Roe v Wade. The problem is, Nagy’s overly jaunty approach to the story almost ignores any real danger that existed at the time. While the group collectively decide who will get the abortions and who won’t, they casually discuss economic disparity (they charge $600 for each procedure), race, and circumstance, making for some truly awkward sequences, discussing rape and incest while sipping coffee and listening to folk music.
Nagy’s musical selections play a big part in the strange vibe of Call Jane, as the film’s soundtrack is packed with songs from the era, sung by women and sometimes lyrically relevant, sometimes not, but always upbeat, even comical at times, adding to the tonal confusion that defines this film.
There is no denying that it is nice to have a film that addresses the vital need for women’s access to safe, legal abortion in a way that doesn’t make you want to immediately move to Canada or scream into a pillow, but the overly casual and dangerously sanitized picture that is painted here might even provoke a different reaction altogether than is intended.
It certainly doesn’t help that Banks is a performer without much of a range, so her inability to imbue her character with any true emotional vulnerability hurts the film in the long run, as the seriousness of the subject is constantly undercut by the film’s low-stakes approach. Sigourney Weaver and Chris Messina have some nice moments, but are unable to break very far from the small boxes their characters live in, and Kate Mara is wasted as a neighbor whose only function is to sit on a porch, drinking cocktails.
Unfortunately, nothing about Call Jane actually feels like anything in real life, and yet it’s dealing in serious real-life issues. It’s not quite a dangerous film, but it certainly feels unnecessary, despite its best intentions.
This review is from the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. Phot courtesy of Sundance Institute | Wilson Webb.