Film & Television

‘Call Jane,’ A New Look at a Timely Topic

Recently, we’ve seen the emergence of a new film genre, as a number of movies — mostly thoughtful and impeccably well-made by women — tackle a topic that’s uniquely female. Audrey Diwan’s Happening; Eliza Hittman’s Never, Rarely, Sometimes, Always; Rachel Lee Goldenberg’s Unpregnant; and Natalie Morales’s Plan B are all examples of abortion dramas, while The Janes, directed by Tia Lessen and Emma Pildes, offers a powerful documentary companion.

The Jane Collective, more formally known as the Abortion Counseling Service of Women’s Liberation, was an underground organization that helped women in Chicago obtain abortions from 1969 to 1973. The mission was to provide a safe and affordable option for women seeking to terminate pregnancy, an alternative to services run by the mob that were both dangerous and outrageously expensive. Although they initially served as an anonymous shuttle service, escorting women in need to accommodating male doctors, over time they learned to perform the procedures themselves. It was, as one former member described in The Janes, “Women doing women’s work.” Record-keeping was, by necessity, limited to index cards that could be quickly and easily destroyed if necessary. But, surviving members of the Collective estimate they performed more than 10,000 abortions. The group was raided in 1972 and several members faced years in prison. However, the case against them was dropped and the organization disbanded when Roe v. Wade was decided.

In the new movie Call Jane, written by Hayley Schore and Roshan Sethi, the story of the real-life  Janes is told through the eyes of one fictional suburban homemaker Joy Griffin (Elizabeth Banks in a career-defining performance). Through the course of the film, Joy evolves from an only slightly dissatisfied (along the lines of Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique) wife and mother, to a desperate law breaker, to an accidental activist, and finally to an impassioned crusader. Although a bit too well-heeled to represent every woman once denied a sanctioned abortion, Joy’s a compelling character and the heart of a solid and often enlightening film.

Call Jane marks the first film directed by Phyllis Nagy, the Oscar- and BAFTA-nominated screenwriter of 2015’s Carol. It’s an impressive debut, capturing both the intimacy of a domestic drama and the sweeping societal changes of the late 1960s.

The earliest scenes of Call Jane neatly characterize Joy and foreshadow her journey ahead. Attending a cocktail party hosted by her husband’s law firm at a swanky hotel, Joy slips out to find a wall of law officers, clubs at the ready, waiting for an oncoming “Yippie” demonstration. “The world is watching!” the activists chant as the police move in to brutally beat them. Joy’s husband dismisses it as a “riot,” but Joy points out that both the protesters and the police are only a little older than their daughter. She senses there are changes coming, that the world is “shifting.” She doesn’t yet know how dramatically her own world is about to shift.

Expecting her second child, Joy begins having health issues and learns that she is in pregnancy-induced heart failure. The cure, her doctor explains, is not to be pregnant. He petitions the Board of Joy’s hospital to authorize a “therapeutic termination.” At this point, Joy is playing by the rules; she even brings a platter of cookies to the board meeting. Within minutes, however, the all-male board dismisses her doctor’s recommendation. They think the chances of Joy birthing a healthy baby are good and ignore the fact that the same healthy birth could easily kill her. In fact, they ignore Joy who is sitting right across from them, speaking about her in the third person. She is utterly reduced to a reproductive vessel — for anyone who has been watching The Handmaid’s Tale, the scene will feel eerily and infuriatingly familiar.

Joy quickly exhausts her options, which include finding two psychiatrists who will vouch that she’s suicidal, and when that doesn’t work, forging a check to withdraw some of her husband’s money (lest we forget it’s 1968) and pursuing a back-alley abortion. Finally, she sees a flyer: “Pregnant? Anxious? Call Jane.”

After getting the help she needs from the compassionate Janes, none of whom is actually named Jane, Joy is enlisted by the group’s leader, feminist fighter Virginia (Sigourney Weaver, simply wonderful here and also currently starring as a very different woman in The Good House). Virginia does whatever she has to do to help as many women as she can, which includes wrangling her dedicated but often messy volunteers. “We help women,” she insists firmly, arbitrating a fight about who most deserves the limited number of procedures they can provide. “We don’t ask questions.”

Banks and Weaver are marvelous together, and there are other standouts in the cast as well. Wunmi Mosaku is terrific as Gwen, the only Black Jane, who worries that women of color aren’t getting the access they need. Cory Michael Smith is cold and creepy as Dr. Dean, the physician willing to perform abortions for the Janes’ clients at $600 each (an exorbitant sum, out of reach for many). Kate Mara is memorable if a bit underutilized as Joy’s widowed neighbor Lana, who cradles a copy of Diary of a Mad Housewife, drinks, and pops pills, “When I feel nothing.”

Less successful are the actors playing Joy’s family. As husband Will, Chris Messina seems out of touch at best, and sexist and judgmental more often. And, it’s never clear whether Grace Edwards as Joy’s teenage daughter Charlotte is more or less progressive than her mother. All in all, Joy’s homelife is so joy-less that I was half-hoping she would leave and go live with the Janes.

What is most memorable about Call Jane is the way it handles the abortions themselves, and there are many. There’s no nudity; each procedure takes place under the woman’s gown and away from our view. But, every step is narrated, by Dr. Dean and later by Joy. The effect is jarring at first and then strangely normalizing. What is probably the worst day of the pregnant woman’s life — we see and to some extent share her fear, grief, discomfort, and pain — boils down to a very straightforward, 20-minute sequence, always the same whether the woman is unmarried, was raped, or already has eight children she can’t afford. In some ways, while Call Jane is what I referred to earlier as an abortion drama, the abortions are one of the film’s least dramatic elements — which makes a fairly dramatic statement in itself.

Of course, right now, all of the abortion dramas I’ve mentioned feel appallingly timely. Yet they were also prophetic; it should be noted that each was developed and produced before the Supreme Court reversed Roe this past year. As both elected and appointed officials continue to threaten women’s reproductive rights, I can’t help but wonder what the future holds for our daughters and granddaughters. As many activists have pointed out — and as Call Jane so poignantly dramatizes — abortions will continue to be needed and sought out. No law will put an end to them; it will just determine whether they are safe and accessible to all.

Much rests on coming elections. We can only hope that future abortion dramas are limited to the screen.

Call Jane is currently playing in movie theatres.

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