Elizabeth Banks plays Joy, here calling for help with an abortion.

Tense, Thorough, and Moving Activism — “Call Jane”

“Call Jane” is a gripping, quietly intense, and tender movie about providing underground abortions before Roe v. Wade. In the late 60s, an organization known as the Janes helped connect women with medical care that hospitals refused to provide. The Janes helped women access safe abortions in Chicago. “Call Jane” is based on this real-life organization and its often life-saving care. Elizabeth Banks plays Joy, a housewife with a life-threatening pregnancy. Every potential solution is roadblocked by bureaucracies run by men, until she finds a flyer for the Janes.

The film’s directed by Phyllis Nagy, the screenwriter of “Carol”. “Call Jane” possesses much of the same attention to the detail of its time period, but what really sings is the experiential detail. Following Joy through the steps she takes in trying to save her own life is a remarkable piece of filmmaking. I appreciate that “Call Jane” follows her into the procedure itself so we can keep our attention on a woman’s perspective and experience of it. Banks’ performance throughout is phenomenal.

Joy is someone who starts off wanting another child. She has access to some privilege and is well off. Her husband is a criminal lawyer, supporting of her at least in comparison to the era shown. At the same time, we see that she does a great deal of thankless work – not only in her roles as wife and mother, but in editing and rewriting her husband’s briefs and statements.

In the first scene, they’re at a soiree for his law firm. Joy briefly steps out the front of the hotel, during the 1968 Democratic National Convention protests. A cop ushers her back in, shortly before silhouettes are shown clashing against the door. That current of unrest and simmering tension runs quietly underneath the film.

One of the things I love most is how detailed the process of the Janes’ activism is. When women enter for an abortion, they go through multiple watched doors. They have knocks and passwords, ensuring early warning for others in the building in case the police raid. The Janes have to pay off the mob for the buildings they use and to maintain their secrecy. The man performing the abortion procedure charges a great deal since what he’s doing is a felony for the time. This combination means women have to pay a lot, which forces the Janes to turn away those who can’t pay and are often in the greatest need.

This means turning away students, women with medical complications, and rape victims including children. Due to redlining, racism within employment, and other forms of racism, it also means disproportionately turning away Black women. This creates realistic friction in the group, and I’m glad the film doesn’t brush over it. The real Janes have spoken in interviews and documentaries about the difficulty of navigating these complications. This type of activist organization is constantly changing, evolving, falling short and trying to do better. “Call Jane” gives us a real sense of the two steps forward, one step back nature of what the Janes did. There’s always a sense and drive that they could help more if only they had the resources.

We see back alley deals with pharmacies for supplies, and how the women taught each other to perform the procedure. Part of the film focuses on Joy’s home life and how the demands of activism force her family to adjust in ways that they struggle to understand – especially given many of the strict expectations of a wife and mother in that era.

I’ve always seen Banks as a solid, reliable actress with a good eye for sprinkling in unique roles. Here, she’s just great. This is her best performance. It’s one that should’ve made more noise in awards season, but in a post-COVID world, sub-$10 million films haven’t gotten the same audience attention they used to.

“Call Jane” is also truncated, wrapping up earlier in the story than it feels it should. Maybe that’s appropriate – it shows the joy and progress of what happened, the ability to help others that the Janes embodied. Several would later be arrested – they famously passed around index cards with prospective patients’ names while in the police van, taking turns consuming them so that there was no evidence left to harass other women. I would’ve liked to have seen the sheer heroism of that moment, but the film makes a leap in time toward the end. I won’t say more than that, but the ending of the film feels very sudden in a way that doesn’t fit the step-by-step pace that’s led up to it. It didn’t take away from an exceptional experience, but it did leave me feeling like “Call Jane” still had so much more story left to tell.

Nonetheless, “Call Jane” is highly recommended. The writing is exceptional in a number of ways. It grounds us inside a difficult and tense experience, it translates the relationship that can exist between conflict and progress within activism, and it finds ways to convey a number of women’s experiences in empathetic ways. There are very good performances here most notably by Banks, but also including Sigourney Weaver, Wunmi Mosaku, Kate Mara, Chris Messina, and Grace Edwards.

“Call Jane” is a film that’s well worth your time and makes – I was going to say “makes the argument for abortion rights clear” but it’s nonsense to even pretend it should be an argument. It makes the need and human right to access abortions clear. Abortion rights are human rights, and human rights are a need, not an argument.

You can watch “Call Jane” on Hulu.

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