At the time of this writing, January 22nd, 2022, it is the 49th anniversary of Roe V. Wade, a court case which ruled in favor of a woman’s right to privacy and governmental inclusion when choosing to abort a pregnancy. Right now, there is legislation moving through the United States that would roll back the 1973 decision, making the act of abortion a criminal one, no matter the reason for the procedure. Just like prior to the revolutionary decision in 1973, all this shift will do is move the procedure from safe and secure locations into backrooms, where prohibition can’t stop it but does remove safety. Just like speakeasies popped up to combat restrictions on alcohol, there will be a return to women going to extreme measures to maintain control over their health. Beginning in the late ‘60s and lasting into the Roe v. Wade decision, a collective of women’s rights activists, known as Jane, offered medical services to any woman who needed it, without moral judgement or ethical finger-wagging. Two films covering Jane are premiering at the 2022 Sundance Film Festival: the Tia Lessin/Emma Pildes co-directed documentary The Janes and the dramatic comedy adaptation of events from director Phyllis Nagy (writer of Carol) from a script written by Hayley Schore (Code Black) and Roshan Sethi (7 Days). Boasting a cast that includes Elizabeth Banks (The LEGO Movie), Sigourney Weaver (A Monster Calls), Chris Messina (The Newsroom), Kate Mara (House of Cards), and Wunmi Mosaku (Loki), Nagy’s Call Jane meshes the spirit of events, the complicated context of the Janes, with the ridiculousness that comes from a surreal life of skirting the law in the name of individual sovereignty resulting in a tale full of heart and horror.
Housewife Joy (Banks) enjoys her life. She cares for daughter Charlotte (Grace Edwards), delights in porch conversations with widowed neighbor Lana (Mara), and, though a home-keeper for husband Will (Messina), is also a trusted confidant with his work as a criminal attorney. She does all of this while pregnant with a baby girl. Her life is hers and she’s in control. That is, until a medical condition arises from the pregnancy that threatens her life and the decision over her life’s value is made by someone else. With nowhere else to turn, she finds herself in the hands of Jane, a collective of women helping other women find the medical care the law prevents. Soon after her own procedure, Joy discovers a new-found sense of purpose and community with these women, challenging both her preconceptions and her own abilities in the process.
Based on what I can glean from a Q&A with Nagy and the female central cast, while Call Jane is inspired by the real life Janes, the story we see is more of an amalgamation of events involving characters serving as a hybrid of several real people. For some, this will matter a great deal in how they respond to the material. It’s not a biopic by any stretch, nor does it proclaim to be one, so I don’t think we’re trending into the dangerous waters of Bohemian Rhapsody (2018); rather, I think the best way to approach Call Jane is as a foot in the door for individuals who can’t see past the politics or faith-based reasoning that prevents audiences from seeing what abortion laws are really about: feminine control. The script very clearly paints the majority of men in the film as chauvinists, individuals who have all the power of the law and very little of the true responsibilities. We see this in the opening of the film, Nagy’s camera tracking Banks’s Joy as she walks through a hallway which we realize is a hotel in which a nearby banquet hall is throwing a celebration for her husband. She passes the party to step outside where she finds a line of tense police officers (all males) focused on rumbling voices in the distance that are growing closer. The rumblings she hears are the shouts of Yippies yelling “The Whole World is Watching!,” serving as the historical marker that places the start of the tale in Chicago 1968. The officer she speaks with is brisk, dismissive even, which one might presume is because of his concern for the incoming protesters, but it’s just as likely that he, going along with the perception of men we see in the film, finds her a nuisance, an inconvenience to his job. We see the same dismissiveness when Joy seeks approval from the hospital board and the same general detachment from the doctor who performs her abortion (Cory Michael Smith’s Dean). The only reason Messina’s Will isn’t painted with the same brush as the rest is a bit of kindness to his characterization: he’s a criminal lawyer who plays things by the book. Though there are early scenes where Joy and Will appear like a partnership, her withholding her involvement with the Janes can be viewed as protecting him as much as protecting the Jane Collective. This creates a wonderful interpersonal tension while also maintaining the larger tension of perceived gender roles and their place in society. Ultimately, while the entirety of Call Jane may not be a straight biopic, the spirit of the time and the organization remains clearly intact.
What’s fascinating about this approach (loose adaptation versus strict) is that it accidentally opens it up to exalting and denigrating criticisms. Bank’s Joy is an affluent cross-wearing woman who tends to her family and her home. That it’s brought up that none of the household attends church anymore in concert with their economic status (Will makes partner at his criminal law firm at the start) makes Joy the kind of person public relations firms have spent millions convincing doesn’t need the kinds of services “other” women do. Thanks to Banks’s natural charisma, we take to Joy quickly, siding with her as she takes the ups and downs of being a pregnant woman in the late ‘60s in stride; yet, upon meeting the Janes and availing herself of their services, it’s something that takes a while for her to see as something she deserved access to as much as anyone else. Through Joy we are made privy to political nature of the Janes in that they try to remove as much politics from it as possible, proclaiming that all women, whether they can afford the service or not, should be given access. But, services cost money and there’s an obvious demarcation line between who can afford it and who can’t. This immediately generates more than a few fights regarding how politics can never be free of their decisions of who the Janes select to make an appointment with the doctor as long as systemic issues aren’t addressed. As the sole Black character, Mosaku’s Gwen is responsible for not only opening up Joy’s eyes to the complexity of the social system, but Jane leader Virginia (played by Sigourney Weaver), as well. One can always believe themselves to be just and right, thinking themselves doing enough to help, and still leave people out. Considering how much of our society continues to think that only “certain people” require abortions, Joy is the ideal audience surrogate, someone that the majority of audiences might identify with on the journey. Through her understanding, ideally, so do we understand. Through her conflict with coming to terms with what the Janes do and their “clients,” so do we come to terms. Through her seeing these women as exactly that, women and not by their race or social status, so, perhaps, for a time do we.
The trick is that, in so doing, Call Jane is decidedly Caucasian in its presentation, more often safe and secure, than depicting the actual danger these women were in daily. Sure, Joy is taking part in criminal activity, but then she goes home to her warm home and loving family. Her family notices she’s distracted, distanced a bit even, but there’s little danger outside of what she does with the Janes. This is likely not the case for the rest of the characters and, with this erasure of perspective, Call Jane is often a light jaunt of a film rather than a serious emotional drama. I can’t speak to the actual make-up of the Janes, but that there’s only one Black woman in their Chicago-based organization is either a terrible truth of the group or an oversight on casting. With so much of the script borrowing from the truth to create its fiction, it’s hard to say where the blame falls, but it does fall somewhere and the lack of multicultural representation makes for a gaping hole in perspective. In this regard, I do recommend another film that addresses similar topics as this which is currently streaming on HBO Max, Lissette Feliciano’s Women is Losers.
I would encourage you to track down other reviews of Call Jane from women critics because their perspective is going to be different from my own. All writers are going to have a different view and women aren’t a monolith, but they’ll possess a perspective that I lack for merely existing in the world as a cisgendered male. According to the research I’ve done, one member of the Janes is a women who was denied an abortion by the hospital board despite a recent diagnoses of cancer. This story was clearly borrowed to create the catalyst for Joy, just like her instruction to go see a therapist and tell them that she’s feeling suicidal in order to convince them to prescribe the procedure. I cannot know what it feels like to be treated, not as a person, but as a vessel for something that the law does not acknowledge beyond its usefulness to create more people. Whereas male birth control can be terminated due to side effects, women more or less must carry on with what society has deemed as permissible side effects (not mentioned: blood clots which can put you in the hospital and/or kill you). There’s a long running joke outside of the film that men are 100% responsible for all unwanted pregnancies, so that society places so much control over women’s bodies rather than men’s is continually frustrating. Given that more and more state-level laws, as well as work to roll back Roe v. Wade, is happening now, a film like Call Jane doesn’t just feel like watching something that happened 50 years ago, but a glimpse into what will happen again in the present. You want to protect the women in your life? Give them the same right you have to medical care in proper facilities with trained professionals. You think the Janes wanted to do business as they did? All they wanted was the same rights as anyone else. Whatever your political or religious beliefs, and I applaud Nagy, Schore, and Sethi for the manner in which they kept things as secular and apolitical as possible, none benefit from the barbarie of women’s rights. Why move back to the dangerous past when we can shield and protect those rights we have and those yet to come?
Screening during the 2022 Sundance Film Festival.
For more information, head to the official Call Jane Sundance film page.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.