‘Call Jane’ Review: Abortion History That’s Being Repeated Now

A fictionalized drama about the Jane Collective, a clandestine group that helped women secure safe, illegal abortions before 1973, is of the moment.

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By Manohla Dargis

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When I first saw “Call Jane” in January, I filed it away as an appealing if familiar period piece, more dusty than revelatory. It’s a fictionalized drama about the Jane Collective, a real-life clandestine Chicago group that, starting in the late 1960s, helped women secure safe, illegal abortions, stopping only in 1973 with the passage of Roe v. Wade. Watching it again recently, four months after the Supreme Court overturned the constitutional right to an abortion, it felt like a different film. History can do that to a movie — and to a critic.

The aesthetic qualities of “Call Jane” haven’t changed since my first viewing, of course. It’s an intimate, fine-looking work that has a lightly grainy visual texture (it was shot on film) and the usual era-appropriate swinging hair, skirts and the like. The director, Phyllis Nagy, making her feature film debut, has embraced unobtrusiveness as a style, perhaps to soft-pedal the material. She doesn’t overuse close-ups or indulge in irritating contemporary habits: The camera doesn’t hover pointlessly, there are no self-aggrandizing crane shots. The cast is as appealing as I remembered it; the awkward scenes still jar as do the upbeat music choices.

Written by Hayley Schore and Roshan Sethi, the movie focuses on a fictional character, Joy (a solid Elizabeth Banks), a genial pregnant housewife with a nice husband, a teenage daughter, a pleasant home and not much else going on. Shortly after the movie opens, Joy’s doctor tells her that she has a heart condition that will probably kill her unless her pregnancy is terminated. Because abortion is criminalized in Illinois, she is forced to petition a hospital board to obtain one. At the meeting, her doctor makes the case for her — she brings a tight smile and some home-baked goodies — but the all-male board votes against providing the procedure, deeming that there’s a 50 percent chance Joy will survive the pregnancy.

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