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Review: A 1960s underground abortion network in 'Call Jane'

In Phyllis Nagy's “Call Jane,” Joy (Elizabeth Banks) is a 1960s housewife married to a defense attorney (Chris Messina) with a teenage daughter (Grace Edwards) and a baby on the way. A heart condition, though, threatens her life in childbirth.
This image released by Roadside Attractions shows Elizabeth Banks in a scene from "Call Jane." (Wilson Web/Roadside Attractions via AP)

In Phyllis Nagy's “Call Jane,” Joy (Elizabeth Banks) is a 1960s housewife married to a defense attorney (Chris Messina) with a teenage daughter (Grace Edwards) and a baby on the way. A heart condition, though, threatens her life in childbirth. The only treatment, her doctor tells her, is “to not be pregnant.”

When they, acting on the doctor's advice, appeal to the hospital's board for permission to conduct a therapeutic termination, this critical moment in Joy's life passes curtly. The all-male board members discuss it briefly while not acknowledging Joy, across the table. “No regard for her mother?” she asks. Their votes sound the answer. “No." “No." “No."

“Call Jane," which opens in theaters Friday, is set more than 50 years ago but it could hardly be more up-to-the-minute. Following the Supreme Court's overturning of Roe v. Wade earlier this year, abortion — which Pennsylvania Senate Republican candidate Dr. Mehmet Oz recently described as between “a woman, her doctor and local political leaders” — is again a hotly debated issue in upcoming elections.

Nagy, the screenwriter of Todd Haynes' radiant '50s-set 2015 drama “Carol,” again illustrates how the past can illuminate the present. “Call Jane," made before the end of Roe v. Wade but when its future was increasingly precarious, dramatizes the Jane Collective, a Chicago network of women activists who in the years before legalized abortion, clandestinely helped other women obtain safe abortions.

“Call Jane” is just one of the films about abortion rights that by happenstance have debuted this year. Audrey Diwan’s piercing “Happening,” about a young woman in 1963 France, remains one of 2022's standouts. Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes' HBO documentary “The Janes” grippingly recalled the Jane Collective, with colorful reflections from the women who helped run it.

“Call Jane,” the glossiest of the bunch, lacks the vivid detail of “The Janes” or the riveting visual intimacy of Diwan’s movie. But all three films bear an of-the-moment urgency and a deep sense of empathy for the adversities faced by women whose choice has been taken from them. “Call Jane” distinguishes itself as a stirring portrait of the birth of an unlikely abortion-rights activist.

Banks, always good but especially strong here, plays a woman who looks more ‘50s than ’60s. But she is slowly awakening to the changing times. In the opening scene, she walks through an elegant hotel lobby with sumptuous music playing — a moment that would fit right in in “Carol” — only to be struck at the raucous sound of women protesting outside. “You can feel a shifting current,” she tells her husband.

Their family life is traditional, loving and — aside from a Velvet Underground record — conservative. Centering the story on a straight-and-narrow character like Joy is, itself, a reminder of the wide spectrum of people who might one day reluctantly seek an abortion. Joy's options, initially, are terrible. “There's always insanity,” the doctor tells her. One woman suggests: “Just fall down a staircase.”

It's a paper ad at a bus stop that brings Joy to Jane. After a hesitant phone call, she's brought to their offices by blindfold. But “Call Jane” doesn't play up the covert aspect of the group's activities. Nagy instead stays focused on Joy's awakening to a wider world of female fellowship that's more frank about sex and its repercussions. Virginia (Sigourney Weaver) is the group's leader and a natural hippie foil to Joy. She calls Joy “Jackie O." Soon after Joy's own procedure, Virginia lures Joy into volunteering with the collective. At first, Joy isn't entirely convinced. One young woman who comes to Jane is having unprotected sex with a married man, Joy is appalled to learn. But Virginia lays down the law: “We help women. We don't ask any questions.”

“Call Jane” loosens up notably inside the collective, a varied group of women that includes a Black Power activist (Wunmi Mosaku) and a nun who fields phone calls (Aida Turturro). There may have been more possibilities here for the film, which spends a lot of time with the group's less valorous doctor (Cory Michael Smith), who performs the procedures. But that, too, becomes part of Joy's storyline, as she gets more and more deeply involved with Jane. For Joy, it's more than a cause. For the first time, she realizing her own power.

There are probably many more stories that could be told about the Jane collective, which facilitated an estimated 12,000 abortions in the years before Roe v. Wade. But few know how to tease out threads of repression in a society like Nagy. The conventional approach of “Call Jane” is a statement, itself. This could be anyone's story.

"Call Jane,” a Roadside Attractions release, is rated R by the Motion Picture Association for some language and brief drug use. Running time: 121 minutes. Three stars out of four.


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Jake Coyle, The Associated Press