“Just fall down the stairs,” a receptionist says in Call Jane. “That’s how I took care of mine.”
With “Roe v. Wade” on the line, the USA could quickly roll back reproductive rights to 1968. That tumultuous year of protest and awakening, five years before the Supreme Court’s decision on “Roe v. Wade,” is the setting for Call Jane. The film revisits the recent past of back alleys, shady doctors, or worse. This directorial debut by Carol screenwriter Phyllis Nagy is a domestic thriller that examines history through a contemporary, and unabashedly feminist, lens. Weaving through kitchens and close-door clinics, Call Jane navigates an ongoing fight with urgent stakes.
The film tells the story of the Jane Collective, also tackled in the Sundance doc The Janes, which helped thousands of women secure safe abortions when they lacked legal means to terminate pregnancies. Seen through the eyes of all-American housewife Joy (Elizabeth Banks), the story of the Jane Collective evokes the power of intersectional feminism. Many of the dynamics of race and class that drive and divide the Janes remain today.
Joy doesn’t have to worry about those factors right away, which makes Call Jane’s retrospective alternatively deft and disjointed. When Joy leans that her pregnancy is causing congestive heart failure, her doctor advises that terminating the pregnancy is the only cure. That said, he needs approval from a board of doctors to make an exception for the procedure. Cue a conference table that pits Joy on one side and a dozen old white dudes on the other. Quickly and predictably, she loses.
See Jane Run
Joy considers heeding the secretary’s aforementioned advice and nearly hurls herself down her stairwell. Her daughter, Charlotte (Grace Edwards), comforts her. Her husband, Will (Chris Messina), scratches his balls and goes back to bed.
Shortly thereafter, Joy finds herself face-to-face with a note on a telephone pole. It advises women in need to simply “Call Jane.” She does and soon finds herself chauffeured to a nondescript office. A young doctor, Dean (Cory Michael Smith, humorously clinical), efficiently if impersonally administers the procedure. There’s nobody to hold Joy’s hand, but that’s that.
Some pacing issues keep Call Jane heavy with exposition as Joy absorbs the intricacies of the Jane Collective. As she rests up and recuperates with a bowl of spaghetti, she learns that there is no titular Jane. The default leader of the collective, Virginia (Sigourney Weaver), explains openly that the operation survives through women helping women.
Thriller elements ensue as Virginia recruits Joy to give back to the operation. Joy learns the hardships that other women face while procuring treatment. $1000 is a lot of money to move—and, potentially, to hide from abusive partners. She knows that Doctor Dean could be charging much less and doing much more to comfort the women. Joy draws upon her own experience with the ordeal to provide a comforting hand—and a reassuring female presence—in the room. The Janes become her new mission.
Rare Lead for Banks
As Joy becomes more involved in the collective, screenwriters Hayley Schore and Roshan Sethi introduce a myriad of factors competing for attention. When the Janes assemble, they face the awful task of deciding which women to help amid their busy volunteer schedule. The ability to pay often decides who gets treatment even though all the women are in need. Gwen (Wunmi Mosaku) reminds Virginia that Black women especially suffer. Virginia negotiates with Dean as Joy decides to learn how the Janes can help more women themselves.
Banks gamely takes hold of this rare dramatic lead performance. Joy is not an especially flashy role, for she’s been taught to quietly support and serve her husband. Banks, a dead-ringer for the Mad Men era in Call Jane’s fashionably restrained period details, harnesses Joy’s silent strength. One close call with a police officer, who reveals the power dynamics with which the Janes struggle, lets Banks speak volumes while saying very little.
Call Jane eschews conventional conflicts, like botched abortions, suspicious husbands (Will is woefully clueless), or police raids to focus on the mundane. Procuring abortions is a daily event, and it can be done legally or illegally. Instead, Call Jane situates Joy’s awakening amid America’s greater unrest. Anti-Vietnam protests echo in the background. References to the civil rights movement motivate the Janes to fight but sees their causes implicated in those of others.
Where Call Jane really comes to life, however, is in the scenes with Sigourney Weaver. Virginia might be her best role since 1997’s The Ice Storm and she similarly attacks it. This performance brings the spark, authority, and directness that makes the urgency of Call Jane resonate. She’s very good at using her body in the space of each scene to remind her fellow Janes to be fearless. As one of the few stars of Call Jane to have come of age in the era of the Janes, Weaver knows the stakes and she makes them palpably clear.