[Sundance 2022] CALL JANE -- A Questionably-Directed but Well-Acted Historical Drama
Review by Sean Boelman
Phyllis Nagy was nominated for an Academy Award for her screenplay for Carol, but has not released any work since then. She only directed her newest film, Call Jane, which is a relatively standard historical drama movie that benefits from a strong cast and a story that is important enough to speak for itself.
The film follows a married woman who must receive an illegal abortion after complications in her pregnancy, later joining a group who help find women the medical assistance they need. Hayley Schore and Roshan Sethi’s script is on the conventional side and exaggerates beats of the story in the expected ways, but it still works well.
It does take a while for the movie to get to the meat of its story, with a majority of the first hour being spent on exploring the protagonist’s personal experience rather than the overall movement. But once the film starts to get into these women operating this underground network, it starts to be quite compelling.
That said, this introduction does provide some exceptional characterization. It’s easy to get invested in the story because of the connection we have with the hero of the story. That said, there are some problematic aspects to this angle of the story. Although it doesn’t reduce the importance of the message, having a privileged white woman as the protagonist makes it feel like everything is being too sanitized.
Nagy did assemble a wonderful ensemble for her movie. Elizabeth Banks plays the lead role, and she gives a performance that, while not particularly deep, does exactly what it is supposed to do. Sigourney Weaver has a show-stealing turn in a supporting role, with some of the best scenes in the film.
Given the recent developments in anti-abortion laws in the United States, this story is more relevant now than it has been since the era in which it was set. It’s sad that American society has devolved back to this point, but this movie provides a wake-up call that is forceful enough to resonate but not so overwhelming as to be unpalatable for general audiences.
There are definitely some questionable decisions made in the film from a directorial standpoint. Although the periodization in terms of the production design is quite strong, there are a lot of other things that don’t work. Some of the movie’s use of visual symbolism is so on-the-nose to the point of being frustrating.
Call Jane may not be a groundbreaking film, but the performances are great in a way that makes it genuinely memorable. Even in its conventional approach, this story is powerful enough to be effective.
Call Jane screened at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, which ran virtually from January 20-30.
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