The latest film by Carol director Phyllis Nagy, Call Jane is one of two films featured in this year’s Sundance Film Festival that focuses on the Jane Collective, an underground group in America that performed illegal abortions in the 1960s.
Starring Elizabeth Banks, Sigourney Weaver and Chris Messina, Call Jane follows Joy (Banks), a newly pregnant housewife in 1960s Chicago. With her immaculate hair, perky smile and sunny personality, she is depicted as the conventional, dutiful housewife who is happy to play a supporting role to criminal litigator Will (Messina) and mother of Charlotte (Edwards). However, her world is turned upside down when she is diagnosed with a heart condition and the best way to resolve it is to be simply ‘not pregnant’. Unfortunately, the advice from (mostly male) medical professionals fails to assuage Joy’s fears, causing her to contact ‘Jane’. Despite their offputting service, Joy’s involvement in Jane begins to grow from driver to surprising practitioner while the group struggles to support the increasing number of women in desperate need of their service.
With Joy’s journey dominating the film, screenwriters Hayley Schore and Roshan Sethi leave little room to develop other themes that could have created a more complete film. For instance, the naivety of young women on sex and relationships, racial equality regarding healthcare, teen pregnancies and toxic relationships are all modestly referred to and would benefit the film, as well as Jane’s general cause and benefits to women, with further exploration. However, Call Jane only has one woman leading the way – and it’s Joy, and the film’s straightforward dialogue and character development subsequently prevents supporting cast members such as Messina, Mara and – to an extent, Weaver as Jane leader Virginia – from making a bigger impact.
Visually, the wonderful aesthetic and production design reinforce the Jane Collective’s progressive nature, and Nagy takes care to sensitively capture the anxiety of the women involved. She restrains from including too much detail in certain scenes, choosing to focus on the close-ups and facial cues from her cast to capture the anxiety of her characters. Her nuance behind the camera allows Banks to deliver a confident lead performance while Schore and Sethi firmly establish the timely theme of inequality in their screenplay. Unlike her friend Lana (Mara), Joy quietly yearns for more than afternoon drinks or being stuck in a kitchen while her editorial skills on Will’s work hints at her unnurtured ambition. As the film goes on, she gradually uses her own experience of the service and compassion towards other women to not only play a bigger role in the collective but prove her age or lack of medical experience cannot prevent her from helping others. Another key scene is Joy tries to address the hospital board to support the termination of an unwanted pregnancy. Despite a plate of cookies, she is surrounded by a group of men who quickly rule against termination, choosing to prioritise the life of the baby over the mother’s wellbeing. With Joy unable to intervene and worse, having no say regarding her child or her body, it is this underlying fury and the fear for her life that drives not only her but others to ‘Jane’. The bluntness and lack of empathy towards her in the boardroom also provide an evident contrast to the Jane Collective, whose vibrant and supportive nature offers Joy with more than just reassurance.
Similar to Carol and British drama Suffragette, Call Jane is about a woman who breaks out of the mould and surrenders to a passion that she didn’t know existed. But given the legacy of the eponymous group, the film overly relies on a conventional albeit mundane narrative and certain clichés to tell its story.
Director: Phyllis Nagy; Hayley Schore, Roshan Sethi (screenwriters)
Stars: Elizabeth Banks, Sigourney Weaver, Chris Messina, Kate Mara, Grace Edwards
Runtime: 121 minutes