This review of Phyllis Nagy’s Call Jane is part of our 2022 Sundance Film Festival coverage. For more reviews and essays, visit our Sundance tab.
“The whole world is watching,” Joy repeats to herself quietly, almost prophetically, as the yippies chanting the phrase in the street outside the hotel ballroom are staved off by cops. It’s August 1968. Chicago, Illinois. The Democratic National Convention infamous for the violence that erupted between anti-war protesters and cops is underway. Civil rights tensions are raging across the country. The world is changing and with it the perspectives of ordinary people. Revolution is afoot.
There’s a reason Joy (a terrific Elizabeth Banks) can’t shake the gravity of the phrase “the whole world is watching.” She doesn’t know it, but she’ll soon turn from an upper middle class, perfectly unbothered housewife into an agent of monumental change. The tipping point comes when she’s denied the right to an abortion by an inert group of hospital board men after she’s diagnosed with a heart problem that renders her pregnancy life-threatening. She’s given a 50-50 chance of surviving the pregnancy, which is enough for the men to uphold the hospital’s proud restriction on abortions. Confounded, defeated, and powerless, she looks for alternatives.
It isn’t long before a chain of events sparked by an ambiguous poster leads her into the company of Virginia (Sigourney Weaver). She and her crew are based on the Janes, a group of suburbanite women who ran an underground abortion clinic in Chicago in the 1960s without qualifying the situation or asking questions at all (there’s also a documentary at Sundance about them, The Janes). Through the Janes, Joy is able to get a safe abortion. And through Virginia’s proactive vigilance, she suddenly finds herself helping out, even if reserved.
She doesn’t feel she can tell her family (Chris Messina and Grace Edwards). It was just yesterday that she felt as disturbed by the idea as she knows they would be. The same goes for her sweet neighbor Lana (Kate Mara), who brings food over for Joy’s family in her absence at “art class” (where Joy tells everyone she is). Taking it one step further, Joy takes matters into her own hands and starts studying the procedure itself.
Phyllis Nagy‘s Call Jane opens like Todd Haynes’ Carol (for which Nagy wrote the screenplay) but in reverse. Where Carol begins by tracking behind someone across the street and into a ritzy hotel lobby dining room, Call Jane begins in the latter and tracks behind our lead to the former. Both ride a certain tension in the air. And they share a similar blown-out mid-century gold/green tint (especially noticeable in the glow of the car headlights) when it comes to the cinematography. But outside of that and some overlapping period design, they aren’t similar.
This is Nagy’s first feature in the director’s chair, and it feels relatively mature for a first (in 2005, she wrote and directed Mrs. Harris, an HBO movie with Annette Bening and Ben Kingsley, but for some reason, we don’t count TV movies?). There’s a lot to like by way of direction — e.g., an engaging imagination when it comes to capturing people in frames, in cars, in conversation; a sense of creative cohesion across the whole project — but there’s also a feeling that we’ve seen all of this before.
As Nagy explained in her Sundance pre-screening introduction, this is a film about choice, a woman’s right to choose, an issue taking center stage in the Supreme Court this year. But imminence doesn’t breed greatness.
Call Jane, which was written by Hayley Schore and Roshan Sethi (co-creators of The Resident), is too focused on over-commending the choices made by its protagonists to find freedom in its own creative identity. It starts strong but eventually loses its subtlety, giving into by-the-book turns that end up stenciling tropes where fleshed-out characters should be painted. Not even a White Light/White Heat dancing montage can lift it out of the spell of mediocrity.
That said, it’s clear Nagy has an eye as a director. One wonders what she might achieve directing her own screenplay with this kind of experience under her belt.
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