It's coincidental, yet entirely appropriate, that the same year in which Roe vs. Wade was overturned has given us three narrative films pertaining to the subject of abortion, covering both sides of the issue. Happening follows a young woman through the process of obtaining an illegal abortion in 1960s France. Lifemark tells the story of a woman who chooses an adoption plan over an abortion, and is glad she did when she meets her teenage son years later. Now comes Call Jane, based on the true story of “The Jane Collective,” a group of progressive activists who helped 11,000 women have safe illegal abortions between 1968 and 1973. What's impressive is that all three movies are good, making a thoughtful case for their positions through drama rather than through outright sermonizing. No matter where you stand on the issue, you can watch any of them and get wrapped up in a compelling story.
Elizabeth Banks stars in Call Jane as Joy, a suburban Chicago housewife. She has an unplanned pregnancy that comes with a complication that gives her only a 50% chance of surviving childbirth. Together with husband Will (Chris Messina), she appeals to the hospital's ethics board to allow an abortion to be performed. They decline the request. Then she sees a flyer taped to a mailbox, encouraging women to “Call Jane” if they wish to terminate a pregnancy. She calls the number.
That puts her in contact with the Janes, a group run by no-BS feminist Virginia (Sigourney Weaver). They arrange for her to have the procedure done by their doctor, Dean (Corey Michael Smith), a guy with a poor bedside manner and a commitment to safety. She hides the abortion from Will and daughter Charlotte (Grace Edwards), claiming to have miscarried. Once you've entered the Janes' territory, they expect something in return. Joy is soon transporting other women to their appointments, comforting them in the makeshift operating room, and following up with them afterward. Eventually, she expresses an interest in learning how to perform abortions herself.
Although the Janes were real, Joy is a fictional character designed to take us through the process, letting us learn what she learns. Call Jane delves meaningfully into the issues faced during those pre-Roe years. Dean charges $600 for a procedure, making it affordable for wealthy suburbanites like Joy, but not working class women. One of the Janes, Gwen (the excellent Wunmi Mosaku), points out that they're basically running a service for rich white women, thereby excluding Black women in need. Once an adjustment is made to reduce the cost, the Janes are flooded with requests, leaving them in an uncomfortable position of having to weigh the circumstances of each applicant. Virginia believes such judgement calls are counter to the mission, yet many of the tales are heartbreaking. In tackling these ideas head-on, Call Jane makes a reasonable case for how legal abortion eliminates a lot of problems.
While any film dealing with abortion will inherently be political, director Phillis Nagy and writers Hayley Schore and Roshan Sethi avoid overt political messaging. This is fundamentally a human story about a woman who gets in a jam, has to take drastic measures to get out of the jam, then tries to help other women in that same jam. Viewers are allowed to decipher its point by having the experience alongside Joy, as opposed to having it expressly stated by her or anyone else. This is the picture's most appealing quality. Call Jane uses strong plotting and character development to say what it wants to say.
Elizabeth Banks does some of the best work of her career in the lead role, beautifully conveying Joy's transition from begrudgingly having an abortion to becoming an advocate for abortions to be safe and available. The actress brings out all the emotions inherent in the character's personal journey. Sigourney Weaver is outstanding, too, playing Virginia as a blunt, straightforward activist, driven by her passion for the cause. Watching how the women affect each other over time is rewarding.
The movie stumbles in a few areas. A subplot involving Joy's neighbor, played by Kate Mara, goes nowhere and adds nothing. Similarly, a story thread between Joy and Charlotte resolves itself too easily to be fully believable. Despite those shortcomings, Call Jane is a provocative, engrossing drama that asks the audience to consider the ramifications of abortion being illegal. You may agree with what it says, you may disagree. Either way, you'll be simultaneously entertained and stimulated.
out of four
Call Jane is rated R for some language and brief drug use. The running time is 2 hours and 1 minute.