Review: The characters in timely pre-Roe abortion drama ‘Call Jane’ never feel like people

“Are you Jane?”

It’s a question that Chicago housewife Joy (Elizabeth Banks) repeatedly asks, as she calls a number from a flyer, is picked up in a car, blindfolded, driven to a nondescript office where she receives an illegal but safe abortion from an unfeeling doctor (Cory Michael Smith), and then is cared for by an eclectic group of women. In this group, no one is Jane, but they are all Jane, the generic alias that shields their identities becoming the de facto name for this underground network of women providing abortion care in the years before Roe vs. Wade. In “Call Jane,” director Phyllis Nagy (Oscar-nominated screenwriter of “Carol”), working from a script by Hayley Schore and Roshan Sethi, crafts an unconventional biopic, not of any real person but of Jane, the collective.

That “Jane” was an alias, an avatar, is part of the problem with “Call Jane,” in which all of the fictionalized characters — Joy; Virginia (Sigourney Weaver), the organizer behind the group; Joy’s husband, Will (Chris Messina); her daughter (Grace Edwards); neighbor Lana (Kate Mara) — never feel like real people but indeed, avatars, merely representatives or devices to move the plot along.

Joy is an opaquely written character, a housewife who is never able to fully express her own wants, needs and desires. Banks, working with limited material, delivers a distinctive and stealthily effective performance, using Joy’s inexpressiveness as a character trait. She plays Joy as withdrawn and soft-spoken. Despite her demure exterior, Joy quietly slides in sly barbs loaded with double meaning about the unfairness of her position, whether it’s her husband complaining about frozen meatloaf, or a panel of cartoonishly evil white male doctors denying her the right to the “therapeutic termination” of a pregnancy that’s threatening her life.

After Joy’s abortion, Virginia recruits her as a volunteer driver, and Joy is drawn to providing care to women in their time of need. She starts by comforting them during the procedure, eventually assisting the doctor, before finally demanding he teach her how to perform abortions herself. This is all a part of the Jane collective’s story, also depicted this year in the documentary “The Janes,” streaming on HBO Max.

It often feels like “Call Jane’s” largely excellent cast struggles against a shallow script and underdeveloped characters, their psychology and backgrounds unclear. As the women of Jane debate who they can assist, there’s something that rings hollow, the dialogue landing like talking points rather than authentic human discussion. Nagy’s strength as a director, however, is in her patience with sensitive scenes. As Joy undergoes her procedure, each step and wince is painstakingly laid out, and in quiet but loaded moments between Joy and Will, the unspoken vibrates tellingly between them.

Greta Zozula’s cinematography offers a period-appropriate warmth and grain to the film, and some unusual compositions make it visually fascinating at times. But there’s also the unshakeable sense that something went awry in the edit, as certain suspenseful yet inexplicable moments are ushered in without fanfare and abruptly dropped, like a visit from an undercover cop (John Magaro) that goes to unexpected places, and then nowhere else.

The ending is abrupt, glossing over the real-life 1972 raid with an unexplained mention in passing. As the women celebrate the 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision, which renders their operation obsolete, the tone is frankly jarring. Though “Call Jane” debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2022, months before the Supreme Court overturned the landmark decision in June, it’s surprising that the film was not amended, at least with text at the end, to address that.

“Call Jane” offers a heartening message about the long, ongoing legacy of women helping other women access abortion healthcare, legal or not. Though the film is politically and culturally urgent, it’s too much of a challenge to connect with the void of character at the core of this screenplay. We may all have the power to be Jane, but the image of Jane remains frustratingly hazy in Nagy’s depiction.

Katie Walsh is a Tribune News Service film critic.

‘Call Jane’

Rated: R, for some language and brief drug use

Running time: 2 hours, 1 minute

Playing: Starts Oct. 28 in general release

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