Through the eyes of one woman, Call Jane tells the story of the Janes—a collaborative underground network of women in Chicago in the ’60s who helped desperate girls and women procure safe abortions.
This is one in a series of film reviews from the 2022 Sundance Film Festival, focused on films by women, trans or nonbinary directors that tell compelling stories about the lives of women and girls. You can find all the reviews together here.
Given the precarious state of abortion rights in the U.S. and the fervent hope that we’ll make it to the 50th anniversary of Roe v. Wade next year, it’s fitting that Sundance included two films about the Janes, an underground network of women in Chicago in the late 1960s who helped procure safe abortions for those in need of them before the legalization of the procedure nationwide. Call Jane, featured in the premieres category, is a fictionalized drama about these women’s bravery (the other film, a documentary titled The Janes, will be the subject of my final review, to come shortly).
Directed by Phyllis Nagy—the brilliant screenwriter who adapted Patricia Highsmith’s novel Carol—and written by Hayley Schore and Roshan Sethi, Call Jane employs a composite character, Joy (Elizabeth Banks), as a conduit through which to tell the story of the Janes. A white, upper-middle-class housewife with a teenage daughter, a lawyer husband, and a baby on the way, Joy seems to be living an idyllic life. That is until she begins to suffer from spells of dizziness and fainting; A doctor’s exam reveals that she has congestive heart failure. The only cure, the doctor tells her mournfully, is to no longer be pregnant.
Joy has few options, especially after the board of the hospital refuses to grant an emergency termination—because there’s a chance, however small, that she could survive the pregnancy and carry to term. Her doctor, the psychiatrists she sees, and one of the psychiatrist’s receptionists all try to help her work around the system in dubious ways (the receptionist suggests Joy could throw herself down the stairs to trigger a miscarriage) until one psychiatrist surreptitiously passes her the number of an abortionist.
Her doctor, the psychiatrists she sees, and a receptionist all try to help her work around the system in dubious ways until one psychiatrist surreptitiously passes her the number of an abortionist.
Joy’s first attempt to get an abortion is so depressing and scary, with a gruff doctor in a grimy room, that she quickly leaves. Then, she sees a flyer directing her to “Call Jane” if she needs help with an unwanted pregnancy. When she follows through, she’s treated to a far less unsettling experience: picked up by a sympathetic member of the Janes, taken to an undisclosed but far cheerier location, introduced to a doctor who—while still brusque—speaks to her respectfully. After her abortion, Joy’s taken to the home of Virginia (Sigourney Weaver), who serves as de facto leader of the group, to recover.
Impressed with the Janes’ bravery and feeling a sense of camaraderie with them, Joy quickly finds herself roped into their activities, soon volunteering more and more of her time to driving women to and from appointments, counselling them, helping them prepare and recover, and joining the other Jane members for organizing meetings. A gregarious type with a great deal of privilege from her upbringing, Joy soon ingratiates herself to the doctor, assisting him in calming women during the procedures. Upon discovering their hired abortionist doesn’t actually have a medical degree, Joy persuades him to teach her how to perform abortions herself, so she can help the Janes offer low or no cost services for women who cannot afford the doctor’s steep rates.
As Joy spends more and more time away from home, her husband and daughter take notice. While she attempts to push back on the expectation that she needs to be home every night to have dinner on the table, Joy runs out of believable excuses, the matter comes inevitably to a head, and she must grapple with the consequences of her valiant—but still illegal—work.
Ostensibly, Call Jane showcases the groundbreaking and life-saving activism of the Janes through the eyes of one character on the group’s periphery who recognizes the essential service they provide, feels inspired to help, and becomes an essential member of the group. We can also read the film as a story of formative progress for Joy, whose experience with the Janes allows her to reconsider her own buried ambitions, beyond being a wife and mother, and to recognize other opportunities where her voice can and should matter. Historically, the film has some basis in fact, although its characters are fictionalized; for example, the real Janes did discover their “doctor” had no official medical training and opted to learn how to perform abortions themselves.
Joy’s experience with the Janes allows her to reconsider her own buried ambitions, beyond being a wife and mother, and to recognize other opportunities where her voice can and should matter.
The film, however, focuses too much on Joy’s individual personal growth, her family drama, and her ultimate role in expanding and deepening the Jane network. Employing one character—an outsider, no less, who comes into a pre-established group and then functions as a kind of innovative savior—to illuminate the history of an extensive network of exceptional women feels disingenuous. The Janes were deeply collaborative, involving many women who each brought their own expertise and dedication to the collective. The group was also historically bound to various social movements from the era, a connection the film intimates but does not fully develop.
While the film is artfully crafted and well-acted, the plot itself falls flat, with too much attention on Joy’s personal challenges and growth and too little on the Janes. Joy’s can-do spirit feels a bit Mary Tyler Moore Show (“she can take the world on with her smile!”) without the comedy—not the right tone for an account of a collaborative, revolutionary group of women who put themselves at tremendous risk to procure safe abortions for desperate girls and women. In its efforts to create a sympathetic character to serve as an inroad, Call Jane loses sight of the Janes as a source of inspirational activism as a coordinated community rather than the efforts of one individual.
Sign and share Ms.’s relaunched “We Have Had Abortions” petition—whether you yourself have had an abortion, or simply stand in solidarity with those who have—to let the Supreme Court, Congress and the White House know: We will not give up the right to safe, legal, accessible abortion.
Editor’s note: Throughout the month of February, Aviva Dove-Viebahn will review 12 films in total from Sundance—six feature films and six documentaries. Explore all the reviews together here.
- Framing Agnes
- Am I OK?
- Tiktok, Boom
- Leonor Will Never Die
- Brainwashed: Sex-Camera-Power
- Girl Picture
- Calendar Girls
- Call Jane
- The Janes