‘Call Jane’ Review: Elizabeth Banks Turns in Career-Best Performance in Phyllis Nagy’s Tricky Abortion Drama

There’s something in the air, something shifting. Even Joy (Elizabeth Banks) can feel it from the relative safety of her suburban Chicago enclave, all bake sales and PTA meetings and hanging out with her increasingly inebriated neighbor Lana (Kate Mara) on her breezy porch. It’s August 1968, and when Joy and her husband Will (Chris Messina) head into the city for a glitzy event for Will’s law firm, Joy is shocked to find a protest literally banging on the doors of the otherwise pristine hotel. The yippies are yelling at the cops, who are yelling right back at them, and they are all so young and so scared, and even Joy can’t help feeling scared, too.

In Phyllis Nagy’s feature directorial debut, “Call Jane,” the “Carol” screenwriter turns her interest in portraying the messy lives of real women on a pivotal point in American history, using Banks’ Joy as a canny, if unexpected way into a remarkable group of women. While “Call Jane” might suffer from a litany of the usual first film missteps — a tricky tone often hobbles it, as does a bent toward gliding over history in service of telling a singular story — And Banks, who has stealthily proven her ability in a variety of genres, both in front of and behind the camera, turns in a career-best performance as Joy, a woman who is about to undergo a shift of her own.

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When we first meet Joy, she’s preparing for her second child, an early pregnancy that’s already taken a massive toll on her body, leaving her swimmy-headed and vague, out of breath and freaked all the way out. When her doctor delivers her diagnosis, the only thing worse than the words “congestive heart failure” are the ones describing the cure: “cannot be pregnant.” Here’s what you need to know about Joy: She’s the kind of gal who will bring freshly baked cookies to the meeting (filled with men, only ever men) meant to determine whether she can get an abortion to save her life. When the meeting doesn’t go the way she and Will hoped, she suddenly needs to become a different sort of woman.

Enter Jane. Not just one woman (though Hayley Schore and Roshan Sethi’s script sure has fun with Joy figuring that out for herself), but rather a collective of women who help those in need secure safe and, yes, given the time period, illegal abortions. The film, and Joy, open up once she meets the women of Jane, who happily welcome her into their embrace, with leader Virginia (a delightfully brassy Sigourney Weaver) instantly placing intense responsibility on her shoulders. Suddenly, Joy isn’t just a client, she’s a member, and “Call Jane” filters the experience of Jane through Joy’s own eyes.

Banks is asked to do a lot to portray Joy, tracking her through major changes in a minimum of time, and the actress delivers. With just a flick of her eyes or a certain kind of exhale, she sells Joy’s entire inner life. Nagy might struggle to hold together the film’s tone, but Banks is never less than pitch perfect. It’s a remarkable turn, and one handled with the grace necessary to do justice to this story and the women who inspired it.

In that vein, Schore and Sethi’s script works hard to introduce a wide assortment of women, and while those that populate Jane thrill — from leader Virginia to the righteous Gwen (a wonderful Wunmi Mosaku) to, what’s that, a nun? — the film struggles to bring that full-spectrum approach elsewhere. Lana is dead-eyed and pill-popping, Joy’s daughter Charlotte is eager to know nothing about anything (from periods to Vietnam, and everything in between), and while they are all worthy of love and respect, sections that feature them prominently never quite gel (a subplot involving Lana and Will is both predictable and annoying). Showing that full spectrum is an understandable choice, but the women of Jane are vibrant and compelling enough to be the sole focus.

Nagy’s film is one of two at this year’s Sundance Film Festival that chronicle the work of the Jane Collective. The other is Tia Lessin and Emma Pildes’ “The Janes,” a well-told documentary that surveys the group’s work from start to finish; the two films would make an excellent double feature — and it offers an often entertaining (yes, really) glide over Jane’s fascinating history. One problem, of course, anyone who see “The Janes” first will be tempted to pick out some moments of serious creative license, like how it’s Joy (just Joy!) who unearths the secret their best “doctor” is trying so hard to hold, eventually cooking up the idea that the women should perform the procedures themselves. The truth of the script is mostly intact, but there are surely choices that will rankle.

And then there’s the big one, a bold, surely provocative choice that, paired with Banks’ winning performance, does recommend “Call Jane” for those looking for an honest look at these women and this time. When Joy undergoes her procedure, Schore and Sethi’s script walks us through every single beat of the process, with Nagy’s sure-handed direction never flinching at the truth of what we are seeing, what it means to Joy, what it feels like to us, and how the knowledge of it all is both terrifying and necessary. Throughout the film, Nagy and her stars will return to the procedure, breaking it down into tiny pieces, understandable chunks, turning the so-very-scary into something endurable — just what Jane did so many years ago.

Grade: B-

“Call Jane” premiered at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.

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