Based on the true story of the Jane Collective, a group of young feminist activists who facilitated underground abortions in the Chicago area in the late 1960s and early ’70s, Phyllis Nagy’s heartfelt Call Jane illustrates, clearly and empathetically, why access to safe, affordable abortions is an essential aspect of female healthcare. The movie may take place 50-plus years ago, but in a world where the Supreme Court has overturned Roe v. Wade, the issue has never felt more timely.
Elizabeth Banks stars as Joy, a pregnant suburban homemaker in late-’60s Chicagoland who finds out that she has a condition that could kill her if she carries to term. When an all-male hospital panel refuses to grant her request for a medical termination, Joy becomes desperate. She considers trying to induce a miscarriage and even finds her way to the office of a seedy abortion provider — but it’s not until she comes across a flyer urging pregnant women who need help to “Call Jane” that she finds her solution and, ultimately, her purpose.
Joy — who’s no stranger to privileged, upper-middle-class pearl-clutching — initially plans to be done with the group the moment her procedure is complete. But their leader, veteran activist Virginia (Sigourney Weaver), has other plans, and Joy soon finds herself deeply involved with the Janes. The more women she meets and the more of their stories that she hears, the more she understands how vital the Janes’ service is. She hides her work from her husband, Will (Chris Messina), and their teenage daughter, Charlotte (Grace Edwards), but it as it demands more and more of her attention, things seem bound to come to a head.
This isn’t the first time the saga of the Janes has been told on screen: Rachel Carey’s earnest Ask for Jane dramatized the group’s tale in 2018, and HBO released the powerful documentary The Janes earlier this year. Nagy’s take is more polished than Carey’s but also much more fictionalized (Joy and Virginia are both composite characters). Ultimately, it’s a solid companion for the excellent documentary: Joy’s story (thanks to a warm, compassionate performance by Banks) puts a very relatable, human face on a part of history that we should all hope women never have to live through again. — Betsy Bozdech
Team #MOTW’s comments:
Sherin Nicole Call Jane presses play during the polished perfection of 1950s suburbia, at a time when some insist America was at its greatest and others know ‘not so much.’ Our heroic housewife, Joy (Elizabeth Banks), is emblematic of those times. She is a wife and mother meant to drive home the point: If it can happen to her, it can happen to anyone. The “it” is a life-threatening pregnancy and the abortion needed to survive it. There is no doubt Joy’s choice is necessary. This undercuts the idea that her choice is her right, but sometimes sunshine reveals more than a spotlight. When a panel of men decides Joy’s life isn’t worth saving, she calls The Janes, the revolutionaries for reproduction rights who preceded Roe v Wade. And the incident incites a change. Call Jane has the look & feel of a movie from the 50s but is winkingly self-aware that it is more a mirror than a memory. Performances by Sigourney Weaver, Wunmi Mosaku, and Banks add sparkle to the film, but it is the mirror for our current times that shines the harshest light.
Pam Grady: “But what about the mother?” Joy (Elizabeth Banks) asks after a doctor opines that her high-risk pregnancy should not be terminated because the baby will probably survive it. That Joy has a heart condition that could kill her should she take her pregnancy to term matters not to the panel of male doctors with the power to decide her case in 1968 Chicago. That is but the first shock for the upper-middle-class housewife whose dilemma leads her into the world of pre-Roe v Wade clandestine abortions and eventually to the Jane Collective, a group of women from all walks of life dedicated to providing safe procedures. For Joy, her abortion is only the beginning of radicalization as the woman who brags about her chocolate chip cookies becomes an integral, indispensable member of the collective. Carol screenwriter Phyllis Nagy makes a terrific directorial debut that, much like that Todd Haynes-helmed melodrama, evocatively captures an era. Banks and a vivid supporting cast that includes an acerbic Sigourney Weaver are tremendous in this engrossing, fact-inspired drama that lays out the stakes of where American women where then – and where we are now in the months since the Supreme Court set back the clock on reproductive freedom.
Nell Minow: Back in the late 1960s, when this movie is set, we used to talk about “consciousness raising,” as women began to question the cultural assumptions about their roles and responsibilities and that often included recognition that “the personal is political.” “Call Jane” gives us an example of a woman who learned from her own experience that she could advocate first for herself and then for others. Especially welcome is its understanding of a word we did not know enough to use then, intersectionality, the importance of recognizing the way one injustice piles on another.
Leslie Combemale Call Jane is inspired by the work of the underground activist group Abortion Counseling Service of Women’s Liberation. From 1968 to 1973, the group helped thousands of women to get pre-Roe V Wade abortions. Directed by Phillis Nagy, the film stars Elizabeth Banks as suburban housewife who becomes involved helping members of the organization, aka The Janes, after they helped her to end a life-threatening pregnancy. Several documentaries and narratives have told the story of these women or used the organization 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. Read full review.
Loren King As an accessible film with a solid lead performance, Call Jane is an important addition to the Janes’ story and a reminder of the power of collective action. It’s hard not to feel sorrow and anger when, at the end, the Janes celebrate Roe v. Wade and the dissolution of the group. But it’s also a call to action. Read full review.
Jennifer Merin Call Jane is Phyllis Nagy’s finely crafted truth-based biopic about ‘Joy,’ the courageous woman who joined the Jane Collective, was the first member to learn how to terminate a pregnancy and offer the service, and then taught the procedure to other Jane Collective members so the organization could help more women in need, especially those who couldn’t afford to pay the standard doctor’s fee. Elizabeth Banks does a stunning turn as the conservative housewife turned crusader. Sigourney Weaver serves beautifully as ‘Virginia,’ the Janes’ leader. Call Jane follows one woman’s personal experience with pre-Roe v Wade abortion, and present her personal arc and point of view with regard to the hardships and issues. The affecting narrative is a good and timely companion to the informative and inspiring documentary The Janes, which we featured as our Movie of the Week for June 3. These thematically important and artistically worthy films simply must be seen by as many people as possible. This is a movie that matters.
Susan Wloszczyna: 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. Read full review.
Sandie Angulo Chen: Although overall the documentary (and former MOTW selection) The Janes is a more comprehensive chronicle of the Jane Collective for reproductive rights and access to safe abortions, Call Jane is a tender tribute to the movement. Although its main character, lovingly portrayed by Elizabeth Banks is a fictional composite, Call Jane provides an accessible introduction to the need for the organization and how it helped save so many women’s lives in pre-Roe Chicago. Unabashedly political, the drama doesn’t shy away from the various reasons women sought a termination (not everyone has a life-or-death reason like Banks’ protagonist). The cast is wonderful, particularly Banks, Sigourney Weaver as the “head” Jane, and Wunmi Mosaku as the organization’s sole Black member. A relatively little-known story that is finally reaching the mass audience, but again, if you watch it, also watch The Janes.
Cate Marquis Earlier this year saw the release of The Janes, an excellent documentary about a group of women in the late ’60s who formed an underground network to help women get abortions before Roe V Wade. Now Phyllis Nagy directs a truth-based biopic, Call Jane, with a big-name cast about one of the women who joined that movement. Elizabeth Banks plays Joy, a married, conventional woman who seeks out the “Janes” for medically-necessary abortion after being turned down by the board of the local hospital because they don’t think her risk of death was high enough. Sigourney Weaver is excellent as Virginia, the no-nonsense leader of an organization that offers a safe, affordable alternative to the back-alley abortions run by the mob, which were both risky and expensive. Joy’s personal experience prompts her to join them, and also brings about a personal transformation. This drama couldn’t be more timely, and combined with the documentary, is an eye-opening look at a past that looks to be returning.
Title: Call Jane
Director: Phyllis Nagy
Release Date: October 28, 2022
Running Time: 121 minutes
Screenwriter: Hayley Schore, Roshan Sethi
Distribution Company: Roadside Attractions
AWFJ Movie of the Week Panel Members: Sandie Angulo Chen, Betsy Bozdech, Leslie Combemale, Marilyn Ferdinand, Pam Grady, Loren King, Cate Marquis, Jennifer Merin, Nell Minow, Sherin Nicole, Liz Whittemore, Susan Wloszczyna
Edited by Jennifer Merin