The narrative feature Call Jane, which was released at Sundance 2022, is inspired by the work of the underground activist group Abortion Counseling Service of Women’s Liberation, active between 1968 and 1973, otherwise known as the Jane Collective. Jane was instrumental in helping thousands of women getting access to pre-Roe V Wade abortions. Directed by Phillis Nagy, the film stars Elizabeth Banks as suburban housewife Joy, who becomes involved helping members of the organization, called The Janes, after turning to them to end a life-threatening pregnancy. There have been several documentaries and narratives that have told the history of these women or used The Jane Collective as a backdrop, but Call Jane has the highest profile yet, featuring A-list talent that includes Banks, Sigourney Weaver, Chris Messina, Kate Mara, and Wunmi Mosaku.
Screenwriters Hayley Schore and Roshan Sethi center their story on one woman navigating a patriarchal medical establishment that choose the life of her embryo over her own. She finds a solution with The Janes, and then follows a calling from within to aid them in their work. She does so while keeping her family in the dark, and wrestling with her own moral judgments about the women needing Jane’s help. This allows the character of Joy to be imperfect, conflicted, and not always wholly likable, making the film a closer parallel to the complicated politics around reproductive freedom and bodily autonomy.
Banks brings her career best to an emotionally complex role that requires a strong inner life. She takes time to reveal the character’s many layers, bringing an authenticity to what might be seen as a middle-class white everywoman. Perhaps, the film posits, there has never been such a thing, not even in 1968.
Call Jane has a slow start, with pacing that drags a bit as it focuses on Joy’s dogged can-do approach to her pristine, cookie-baking, WASP-y day to day existence. We see clues of a woman who yearns for more depth and meaning, trying to exist within what she believes are the limits of the time. She’s happy. Ish. The movie opens up considerably when Weaver’s character appears onscreen as Virginia. Weaver and Brank are great scene partners. There are cinematic sparks every time Virginia interacts with Joy. Virginia appears to be running The Janes, making sure volunteers are covering what needs doing, giving post-procedure guidance, while offering them mac and cheese, spaghetti, or what she calls ‘good coffee.’ She also takes absolutely no shit. It doesn’t matter whether Joy wants to be like her, or be her. Either way, she is inspired to do more for the women and girls who need safe, affordable abortions, so much so that she winds up learning how to perform the procedure herself.
Call Jane uses a fair amount of artistic license interpreting the story of the Jane Collective as represented by one woman, but it never falls short in its respect for their work. That license is made all the clearer by the existence of the new documentary The Janes, which also had its premiere at Sundance 2022. It’s gratifying to know Call Jane met with the approval of Jane founder Heather Booth, who commented during the film’s Q&A. “This is a fabulous film. The spirit is true. The context of women’s lives is true. There are facts where artistic license was taken, but the culture and spirit felt real, especially about women’s roles and the struggle for equality, finding the reality of our bodies, finding sisterhood with each other.
There are moments where Call Jane brings emotional context to how important the work of the Jane Collective really was, in a way only a narrative film could do. Particularly powerful is the scene where viewers are guided, step by step, through Joy’s experience, and what women often went through when getting illegal abortions. From the creepy, dirty and darkly lit apartments manned by sketchy dudes to the clean but still terrifying space where she finally has the procedure, quickly and silently, and clearly feeling both pain and relief.
Elements of Call Jane are quite memorable, some tragic, some celebratory. In that way, it must be much like what members of the Jane Collective themselves experienced as part of their courageous work. It definitely offers a worthy platform for Banks to show her talent, which is too often boxed in with roles that don’t show her range. She and the rest of the cast and filmmakers have committed to telling a story important to the history of justice and activism in the US, one that is uniquely about women taking back their power. That is an admirable aim, and deserves our support.