The fight for abortion rights in the United States has been an uphill battle, and it is frequently pointed out that those making the decisions about what women can and cannot do with their bodies are almost always men. The irony of that is sadly lost on most, and, especially those who claim to value human life above all else for religious reasons often place that value on the baby alone and not the mother. Call Jane showcases how one woman’s inability to get a medically necessary abortion in the late 1960s brought her into a world she would never have imagined joining.
Joy (Elizabeth Banks) is a housewife in Chicago, wife to Will (Chris Messina) and mother to teenage daughter Charlotte (Grace Edwards). When she becomes pregnant, she learns that her life will be in jeopardy if she carries the baby to term. Forced to request an exception to the hospital’s ban on abortions and faced with unanimous rejection from its board members, Joy considers her options, and ultimately finds a flyer to “Call Jane.” She soon discovers a network of women who ensure that those in need can obtain abortions and gradually infuses herself fully into the task of making the organization even better and more effective.
Call Jane opens with Joy and Will leaving a function at a Chicago hotel while police barricade the outside, with chants of “The whole world is watching” heard in the distance. Joy is clearly unaware of its significance and not tuned into much of the world outside her existence. Her shock at the disregard for her wellbeing when an unborn life is also on the line leads her to an entirely new mindset, one that sees firsthand how women are filled with fear and hopelessness when an illegal abortion is their only option. She is a naturally helpful person, and this is merely a new outlet for her time and energy.
It’s affirming to see the infectious culture of volunteerism that defines the Call Jane program, which is based on the real-life Jane Collective that successfully provided thousands of abortions during this era. It’s also far from a simple matter, since, though Dean (Cory Michael Smith), the doctor who performs the procedure, is a substantial improvement over others, he still charges an exorbitant fee and his bedside manner leaves a great deal to be desired. An active member of the group, Gwen (Wunmi Mosaku), also points out the racial disparity in their numbers and the general inability of women of color to afford the procedure.
This is a film that gradually becomes more interesting and lively, following Jane’s own immersion into this cause and her realization that she is perfectly capable of doing things few believe she ever could. The double life that she leads, telling her oblivious husband and more perceptive daughter that she is going to art class, fills her with excitement but also allows her to do actively do good in the world, giving of herself because of the benefit to others and less because of her own sense of self-fulfillment.
Call Jane marks the feature directorial debut of Phyllis Nagy, whose only previous credits are the 2005 TV movie Mrs. Harris and as the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of Todd Haynes’ 2015 film Carol. Its sets and costumes are vivid and memorable, and it features a strong cast led by Banks, who delivers a subtle and nuanced performance that leans more on drama than comedy. Standouts among the ensemble include Kata Mara as Joy’s neighbor and Sigourney Weaver as the determined leader of the group. As the 49th anniversary of the passage of the landmark Roe v. Wade legislation is marked, this film is an affirming ode to those who made sure to provide options even when there were no legal routes to a safe abortion.
Call Jane makes its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.