With the overturning of Roe v. Wade, dramas about the old days of illegal—and dangerous—abortions are no longer just shivery recollections about how things used to be. They’ve become harbingers of the future for women in America. You could certainly say that of Phyllis Nagy’s Call Jane, a drama inspired by a real-life network of activists: the Janes, a group of women in late-1960s and early-’70s Chicago who organized in secret to provide safe abortions for women in need. But the film, despite its heavy subject, has a bright, vibrant energy. It’s not so much optimistic as galvanizing.
Elizabeth Banks plays Joy, a sunny, upper-middle-class housewife with a husband, Will (Chris Messina), who’s on the rise at his law firm and a teenage daughter, Charlotte (Grace Edwards), just on the cusp of adulthood herself. Joy also happens to be pregnant, a development she and Will are happy about—until they learn that going through with the pregnancy will endanger Joy’s life. Her obstetrician goes to the board of his hospital—an all-male group arranged around a table like a tribunal—and requests approval for a therapeutic termination. When they learn that Joy’s chances of survival are around 50-50, odds that seem acceptable to them, they turn down the request. Joy’s doctor offers a backup solution: if she can prove she’s suicidal, the board might reconsider. When that gambit fails—Joy is just too provably sane—a secretary in the psychiatrist’s office senses her desperation and whispers another suggestion: “Just fall down the stairs. It worked for me.”
Her options shrinking, Joy tries the back-alley route, but the atmosphere is so dismal and scary she can’t go through with it. In her lowest moment, she catches sight of a discreet-looking mimeographed flier: “Pregnant? Anxious? Need help? Call Jane.” She dials the number, not realizing she’s opening the door to a future she couldn’t have imagined for herself—not just as a woman who will have terminated a pregnancy, but as one who will help others do the same, safely if not legally.
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What’s surprising about Call Jane—written by Hayley Schore and Roshan Sethi—is that even though it treats its subject matter seriously, it refuses to grind the audience down with grim admonishments. It accepts a woman’s right to choose an abortion as a given, and moves forward from there. Joy is escorted to her appointment—blindfolded, just in case she’s a cop—by a taciturn volunteer named Gwen (Wunmi Mosaku). The abortion will be safe, but it won’t be free. The poker-faced doctor who performs procedures for the group (Cory Michael Smith) is just a kid—with his bowl haircut, he looks like one of the Turtles. He pockets his exorbitant $600 fee and gets to work, his bedside manner as cold as a speculum. And once again, Joy isn’t sure she can go through with it. But both the space and the doctor’s tools are clean, and even with all her advantages as a well-off, white woman, she has nowhere else to go. After the procedure, she’s led to a room filled with bustling women volunteers—including a nun—who urge her to sit down and eat a bowl of spaghetti. Virginia, the group’s no-makeup, no-nonsense leader (played by Sigourney Weaver and modeled on Heather Booth, the real-life founder of the Jane Collective), eyes Joy’s perfect blond coif and tasteful suburban togs and thinks this will be the last she sees of her.
And why wouldn’t she? The beauty of Banks’s performance is that she doesn’t just lean on the crutch of playing Joy as a victim of her era. In an early scene, it’s made clear that Joy is college-educated; Will asks her to edit law documents for him, relying on her sound judgment. Even beyond that, though, she has a curiosity about the world that has little to do with education. Tidying up her daughter’s room, she spots a Velvet Underground record and puts it on. She’s dancing to “Sister Ray” in the kitchen, lost in its glorious fuzziness, when she passes out, an alarming indicator of the heart condition that threatens her life if she goes through with her pregnancy. Banks is playing a person with specific human qualities, not a symbol summoned from the mists of time. In the moment when those hospital board members decide what they think Joy’s fate should be, she looks genuinely surprised; this is a woman who, until that moment, believes the men around her will act in her best interest. Banks makes us feel the shock of that moment as if we were living it ourselves, dissolving time between then and now. She’s also drawing attention to our new reality: now is not all that different from then.
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Call Jane covers a lot of territory in a short span of time. Though it’s a fictionalized story, it’s realistic about the ways in which underground volunteer groups, even very noble ones, are usually flawed, messy organizations. (At one point Gwen chastises Virginia for the group’s fixation on helping mostly white women, generally the only ones able to afford the $600 fee.) And there’s nothing dingy or dismal about its production design: the movie has a polished, appealing Mad Men-style glow—perhaps not surprising, considering that Nagy was the screenwriter behind Todd Haynes’s lush period love story Carol. The picture could use a little more dramatic tension; in places it goes a bit slack, losing its way on the path to its conclusion. Even so, its refusal to push the usual buttons is one of its finest qualities. Back-alley scare stories serve their purpose, but Call Jane has something else in mind. This is a story about women getting the job done when they have no one to rely on but one another. Because it’s time, once again, to make sure we know who our friends are.
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