The timely abortion rights film Call Jane, directed by Phyllis Nagy, starts off in Chicago in 1968, as the city and the nation are teetering on the brink of violent political upheaval. We meet a well-off suburban housewife Joy Griffin (Elizabeth Banks, who is the stand-out in the cast) leads an ordinary life with her husband and tween daughter. But when Joy’s pregnancy leads to a life-threatening condition, she must navigate a medical establishment unwilling to help. She then finds learns about the “Janes,” an underground organization of women who provide Joy with a safer alternative — and in the process — changes her life.
Abortion stories often deal with a naive teen girl, such as the one played by Jennifer Jason Leigh in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. But this one puts a face on a story beyond an unwanted pregnancy courtesy of a one-night stand or a nasty boyfriend. So it’s a change that Call Jane puts as a different abortion experience front and center. Joy is a happily married suburban housewife and mother who’s looking forward to having a second child. But when she learns that pregnancy-related health complications give her a 50 percent survival rate, she doesn’t hesitate in her decision. She wants to end her pregnancy and ensure she can be around for her teen daughter, her husband and herself. Alas, abortion is illegal in the majority of the United States.
Joy doesn’t just let the law get in the way, as she saves her own life by having the procedure, even if she is wed to Will, who is a criminal lawyer (Chris Messina). She then pays it forward as she eventually learns how to do abortions for the Jane Collective. But she lies to her daughter, telling her that spends her time taking an art classes. There is a delicate if breezy camaraderie among the Jane members, with Sigourney Weaver as Virginia, their no-nonsense leader. As for the kooky male doctor, Dean (Cory Michael Smith), he gets the jobs done for the Janes. But Joy sneaks off with a medical book from the library and teaches herself how to do the procedure.
Call Jane goes slightly off the rails in its third act, but it finds some unique verve in Joy’s pursuit that eventually leads her to the real-life underground Chicago organization that helped women access safe abortions in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Call Jane most springs to life when it’s delivering an accessible but still politically potent look at how the women-led activist group operated.
The third act of this semi-historical look at abortion issues skips around a lot as we see more than we need of Joy’s home life. But the compelling Jane Collective stuff includes great supporting turns by Weaver and Cory Michael Smith as Dean. Call Jane has a split focus that doesn’t serve either half of its story well. However, the film ends on an ironic note in 1973 when Roe v. Wade was put into law by the Supreme Court.