Credit: Wilson Webb
by Ryan Swen Featured Film Horizon Line

Call Jane — Phyllis Nagy

October 26, 2022

Call Jane can come across as tidy and overly satisfied, but Nagy’s facility with actors and visuals keeps things proceeding with assurance.

Call Jane, the directorial debut of Carol screenwriter Phyllis Nagy, opens with something of a feint. In a near mirror of that film’s first sinuous tracking shot, complete with pleasingly warm 16mm, it follows Joy (Elizabeth Banks) as she strides through a hotel lobby, passing the party that her lawyer husband Will (Chris Messina) is attending, before walking out onto the street to find a police line and the shadows of Yippie protesters in the distance: the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago and the ensuing chaos are literally just around the corner for these relatively sheltered suburban residents.

However, Call Jane isn’t about strictly the collision of culture and counterculture. It belongs, broadly speaking, to the recent resurgence of abortion dramas which includes fellow Sundance-Berlin selection Never Rarely Sometimes Always (2020, Eliza Hittman) and Golden Lion winner Happening (2021, Audrey Diwan). But Joy’s search for an abortion, prompted by a life-threatening condition during the first trimester of her pregnancy, forms a surprisingly minimal part of the film. Requisite attention is given to the board of doctors who refuse to grant a termination on probability grounds and the furtiveness required to obtain the money, but the screenplay by Hayley Schore and Roshan Sethi is refreshingly clear of the moral dilemmas and twists of fate that so often characterize this specific subgenre.

Instead, Call Jane finds something of a utopia within this milieu. Joy gets her termination through the Jane Collective, a real service in the Chicago area that provided discreet abortions, complete with a hotline and, at least initially, a dedicated but overcharging doctor named Dean (Cory Michael Smith). Leading the charge is Virginia (Sigourney Weaver, given several substantial showcase scenes), honed from decades of aggravating activism, who presides over a motley crew of women from different walks of life assembled for this single purpose. The rest of the film is as much dedicated to Joy’s growing fascination and involvement with the program — and her growing frictions with her husband and daughter Charlotte (Grace Edwards) — as it is with the internal dynamics and multiple viewpoints at play in the collective.

A good deal of Call Jane’s charge comes from this interplay, the respect paid to the fundamentally good intentions of almost every major character that nevertheless does not shy away from the limitations of clandestine operations and the day-to-day problems, from the number of abortions that can be allotted per week to the prohibitive $600 cost. Joy — and Banks, who turns in a strong and cagy performance — provides a useful viewpoint, not only because of her considerably more privileged vantage point, but also because of her tenacity and latent domestic frustration that finds its outlet through the Jane Collective. Innovations pop up throughout the film: Joy learns how to perform the abortion procedure herself, the little cards of information from applying women are supplemented by an answering machine. But the focus remains on the people over a relatively brief period, with taking deep interest in both the lively, ping-ponging debates within the group and the more uneasy, coded interactions that Joy has at home, captured most vividly in a scene with an undercover police officer (John Magaro) who ends his interrogation by asking Joy to contact “Jane” on behalf of his friend.

Call Jane’s overall outlook, and especially its post-Roe v. Wade epilogue, can certainly come across as overly satisfied and tidy, but Nagy’s facility with actors and camera movement ensures that this proceeds with assurance; in many ways, the relative lack of dire conflict acts as a benefit, making the ideological battles come across with greater weight. And there’s something oddly lovely and resonant about Joy’s final decision, its own form of compromise that comes with a recognition that most individuals are destined to follow a certain calling, but that it doesn’t prevent one from helping the work of others.

Originally published as part of Sundance Film Festival 2022 — Dispatch 1.