The Jane Collective was an impressive group of women in Chicago in the decades before Roe v. Wade who helped thousands of women gain access to illegal, but potentially life-saving abortions. They were remarkable in helping women regardless of the reason they needed the procedure – they were simply committed to allowing women to be in charge of what happened to their bodies. While the Sundance documentary The Janes gives a nuanced and deep look into the organization, its fictional counterpart Call Jane, which also premiered at Sundance, unfortunately, does not. Directed by Phyllis Nagy (known for writing Carol), the film is a very surface-level portrayal of the Jane Collective to the point of feeling sanitized for the sake of general audiences.
Hayley Schore and Roshan Sethi’s script focuses on a white suburban housewife named Joy (Elizabeth Banks), whom we first meet in 1968. As she walks through a luxurious hotel lobby in her beautiful blue gown and elaborate updo, she sees a protest occurring outside with student activists chanting, “The whole world is watching!” She’s amazed at the young age of the protestors and curious about their cause, but easily distracted by her husband who would rather look away from the police brutality brought down upon the young people outside.
Joy’s life is seemingly perfect. She has a handsome and loving husband Will (Chris Messina), a 15-year-old daughter Charlotte (Grace Edwards), and a fun best friend next door Lana (Kate Mara). She spends her days taking care of the house, helping her husband with his law work, and ensuring she has dinner on the table every night. She’s a bright and cheerful mother and wife and is (if you’ll excuse the pun) joyful about her pregnancy with her second child.
But this is a film, so all of that must come crashing down. After she collapses, her doctor discovers that she has congestive heart failure brought on by her pregnancy. He suggests that they can ask the board for permission for a therapeutic abortion to save her life, but the board talks over her as if she’s invisible and decides – without her input – not to approve one. Will is content to sit back and hope for the best and as she explores other options, one woman suggests, “Just fall down a staircase; it worked for me.”
The film doesn’t delve too far into the dangerous and sometimes fatal lengths that many women went to while trying to abort a baby on their own. There is a good reason that the coat hanger is still seen as the symbol of illegal abortion, many of which happened during this time period. While Joy is frantically trying to find a way out of her situation, she also knows that she will receive the best medical care possible when she does give birth, ensuring her chance at survival, due to her family’s wealth. In many ways, her situation feels low stakes compared to many of the women that the actual Jane Collective helped.
Joy feels that she is running out of options when she sees a flier that suggests that nervous pregnant women “call Jane.” She is connected with a group of women whose ways are shrouded in secrecy, involving blindfolds and special knocks on doors. To its credit, the film shows Jane receiving her abortion – focusing on her expressions and attempts to not make any noise – with the doctor Dean (Cory Michael Smith) explaining each step of the procedure. It’s one of the best sequences of the film as the fear and discomfort are palpable.
Not long after her abortion, Joy is roped into helping another girl by the organization’s woman-in-charge Virginia (Sigourney Weaver) to whom it’s difficult to say no. Joy is horrified at how flippantly the young girl acts towards her abortion, but the other women insist that they must help regardless of the reason. After this first time, Joy becomes more and more involved in the group and becomes integrated into their structure, even helping Dean with the procedures. It’s an eclectic group, from the nun Sister Mike (Aida Turturro) to the group’s only Black member Gwen (Wunmi Mosaku), held together by Virginia’s fire and their collective determination.
There’s a scene in which Gwen and Virginia argue that addresses how white the group is and the number of women of color who are denied medical care and in need of abortions. But it’s difficult to escape the fact that the film is centered around a white housewife whose main conflict is that her husband and daughter resent her being involved when they finally find out she’s not actually been at “art class.” There’s even a scene in which Gwen introduces her to marijuana and while it’s fantastic to see more of Mosaku’s great performance, it feels like an uncomfortable stereotype.
The tone of the film also feels odd considering its serious subject matter. It’s strangely upbeat with no real sense of the danger that these women are in – medically or legally. These dangers are always hinted at, rather than seen, and it results in an overall cheerful film. It’s clearly aimed at general audiences, though it’s questionable how many people who disagree with it would go see a film about abortion in the first place. In many ways, it feels similar to The Blind Side, in its messaging of women’s empowerment while refusing to delve deeper into the problems on display.
For all its issues, it’s still an enjoyable watch (even though perhaps a film about illegal abortions shouldn’t be so enjoyable). Banks, Sigourney, and Mosaku give strong performances and the costumes by Julie Weiss are beautiful. But it feels like a missed opportunity to press upon people the dangerous ends that women will go to in order to be able to take charge of their own reproductive decisions when they’re not given the choice by the law. This bland approach and lack of a sense of what’s at stake might be more forgivable if we weren’t currently in danger of this past becoming our future.
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This post was produced and syndicated by Wealth of Geeks.
Image Credit: Sundance.
Nicole Ackman is a writer, podcaster, and historian based in North Carolina. She loves period dramas, the MCU, and theatre. Nicole is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association and the Online Association of Female Film Critics and is Tomato-Meter Approved.