Maven's Nest

Reel Life: Flick Pix

- courtesy of Roadside Attractions

Immediately relevant, the story becomes more about a conservative wife and mother’s personal awakening than the Jane Collective’s work.

By Nora Lee Mandel

Call Jane
Directed by Phyllis Nagy
Written by Hayley Schore and Roshan Sethi
Produced by Robbie Brenner, David Wulf, and Kevin McKeon
USA. 122 min. Rated R
With: Elizabeth Banks, Sigourney Weaver, Chris Messina, Kate Mara, Wunmi Mosaku, Cory Michael Smith, Grace Edwards, and John Magaro
Release by Roadside Attractions in theaters on October 28, 2022

Set in 1968 Chicago, Call Jane is immediately relevant in over half of the United States where abortion is now effectively illegal. From a screenplay on the 2017 “Hollywood Black List” of best-unproduced scripts, the fictionalized, composite characters present a credible story of how the difficulties a conservative mom faces in ending a life-threatening pregnancy brings her into the diverse “Call Jane” network of women helping women to obtain abortions pre-Roe v Wade. She is woke to get directly involved, and change her life.

Mrs. Joy Griffin (Elizabeth Banks) is barely aware of the Yippies chanting “The Whole World Is Watching” in the streets of Chicago against the police when she starts feeling weak in her second pregnancy. Her obstetrician explains to her concerned husband Will (Chris Messina) that she has a cardiac condition and the only solution is a “therapeutic termination”. As Will insists he’s a criminal lawyer who always follows the rules, they apply for exception permission to the hospital’s board. She brings cookies to their meeting, but it’s enough for the chain-smoking men around the table to hear that the baby will survive and she might. Skittish hospitals today have reverted in restrictive states and health systems to the same decision process. Her husband frets helplessly and her gyn-ob offers back-up suggestions that lead to ever more distressful Plan Bs.

In Chicago, hospitals used to have a “sepsis ward” full of women who had attempted self-abortions. But there was a unique alternative. While Janis Ian’s “Sweet Misery” rocks on the soundtrack, Joy spots a lifeline flyer at a bus stop in a neighborhood considerably more run-down than her suburban block: “Pregnant? Anxious? Get Help. Call Jane”. (Nowadays that would be a a promotion for a religious counselling center.) But Joy is moved by a rapprochement with her disaffected teen daughter Charlotte (Grace Edwards) to call. Through Joy, the audience gets a tour of the subterfuges the volunteer Collective went through to serve its desperate clients.

She keeps asking for “Jane”, but no one woman was actually named “Jane”. That was a code word for anyone who answered the phone number. Instructed to go from one address to another, she’s blindfolded by Gwen (Wunmi Mosaku) and past a female look-out. She turns over the $600 she had to sneak from her husband’s bank account, into a waiting room, then in to the brisk “doctor” for the procedure.

But then she’s surprised by the empathetic group of women who greet her afterwards with a warm blanket and bowl of spaghetti. Joy is charmed by their female camaraderie, feminist repartee, and frank discussion of the difficulties they face, from the Mob, cops, expenses, and the mounting messages of woe from frantic women. Their leader is the charismatic Virginia (an even huskier-voiced Sigourney Weaver) who is the kind of person one cannot say no to – as Joy learns when she gets a follow-up call assuming she’ll volunteer.

Joy’s character conflates too many activities that were actually done by separate women. She’s so busy she even forgets to vote in the 1968 presidential election. Her husband, however, sees her absence as neglect to be filled by their widowed neighbor Lana (Kate Mra).

While Joy is present at arguments over race, income, and structural bias in their selection of clients they can serve (still pertinent issues), the story becomes more about Joy’s personal awakening than the Collective’s work. She takes the initiative to help even more. At home, she undertakes Our Body, Ourselves type bathroom exploration to the tune of Malvina Reynolds’s “What’s Going On Down There”. While there are few overly familiar ‘60s songs, the surf guitar numbers, soul ballads, and Hair cut effectively set the mood and time.

For the non-fiction versions, actual participants were interviewed in two documentaries: Kate Kirtz and Nell Lundy’s 1996 short Jane: An Abortion Service and Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes’s 2022 feature The Janes, now streaming on HBO Max. The credits at the end of Call Jane include a tribute: “Special Thanks To All The Courageous Members of The JANE COLLECTIVE, Who Gave Women A Choice At A Time When They Had None”.

Like Audrey Diwan’s adaptation this year of Nobel Prize-winning author Annie Ernaux’s autobiographical novel Happening (L’événement), set about the same time in France where abortion was similarly illegal, these period pieces emotionally and sympathetically put the past right in the middle of the present.


Nora Lee Mandel is a member of New York Film Critics Online. Her reviews are counted in the Rotten Tomatoes TomatoMeter:
Complete Index to Nora Lee Mandel's Movie Reviews

My reviews have appeared on: FF2 Media; Film-Forward; Lilith, FilmFestivalTraveler; and, Alliance of Women Film Journalists and for Jewish film festivals. Shorter versions of my older reviews are at IMDb's comments, where non-English-language films are listed by their native titles.

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