In 1960s Chicago, a housewife in desperate need of help finds a poster advocating to women in need – “Call Jane”, it says, and she does, kickstarting a journey to self-discovery and inner freedom. Directed by Phyllis Nagy from a screenplay co-written by Hayley Schore and Roshan Sethi, Call Jane stars Elizabeth Banks, Sigourney Weaver, and Chris Messina.
Joy (Banks) and Will (Messina) are a middle-class couple living in the suburbs of Chicago, parents to a teenager and expecting their second child. Joy is frequently disoriented, showing signs of physical distress, and soon learns that her pregnancy is killing her, and her only option is to have an abortion.
Abortions are illegal unless absolutely medically necessary, and Joy and Will’s petition for approval is flatly denied by the hospital’s board of crusty old men. In her desperation to survive the fetus that’s threatening her life, Joy quietly seeks out an illegal abortion through The Janes, a collective of women led by Virginia (Weaver) who organises safe abortions and provide care and assistance for those who can afford it.
Thinking her brief time with The Janes is over, Joy is shocked to get a phone call from Virginia begging for her help with a patient. Suddenly, Joy is spending every day with The Janes, becoming a regular driver, and even standing in on many of the procedures to provide comfort for the women. Before long, Joy is even doing the procedures herself, allowing The Janes to accommodate the women who could not afford the hefty $600 fee.
Joy is exactly what you’d picture when asked to imagine a typical 60s housewife; blonde hair perfectly coiffed, stylish but modest outfits, a patterned half-apron with frills around the hem, a whole life preoccupied with cooking for her family and sitting on the porch with a book and a cigarette. When faced with the reality of her situation, that her life is in danger, she doesn’t balk at the concept of receiving an abortion, as scared as it makes her; she values her life and her role within her family. Unwilling to allow for her unformed baby to take any of that away from her. When she gets the abortion and begins spending more time with The Janes, we see Joy go through a metamorphosis as she embraces feminist ideals and learns that a woman’s place is wherever she wants it to be.
Joy’s journey to self-empowerment does have some negative impacts on her family. She spends more time with The Janes, her husband and daughter are often left feeling neglected. In a time where a man’s only role was to bring home money, Will struggles to find his feet in Joy’s absence, often complaining about having to eat frozen dinners instead of Joy’s usual home cooked meals. Despite his constant confusion and feelings of loss, he continues to support Joy’s new interest in “art classes” thinking that she just needs time to emotionally heal following the failure of her pregnancy. When he does finally realise what Joy has been up to every day, he shelves his feelings of anger and betrayal in order to comfort and understand his wife’s needs.
Banks, who is often best known for her comedic roles, has a lot of grace on screen. Joy is sometimes a little reminiscent of Banks’ Hunger Games character Effie Trinket; a little aloof and removed from the perils of the lower classes, but ultimately a very caring soul whose personality shifts in a positive way through shared hardships. Messina, also known for more comedic roles like Dr Danny Castellano in The Mindy Project, looks every bit the loving but somewhat oblivious family man, and despite looking a little mismatched with Banks from a purely visual standpoint, complements her energy well on screen.
Virginia and the other Janes, women from all walks of life, are crucial in helping Joy to come into her own power. Seeing the work that The Janes put into running the collective, the hard decisions that they have to make, helps to give Joy a renewed sense of purpose. Weaver is perfectly cast for the role. A feminist icon since her role in Alien, Weaver has this certain power in her presence that makes the character of Virginia feel more credible. She’s a battle-worn, no-nonsense woman who you know would help every woman if she could but has to work within the regime that’s currently in place. Through her interactions with Joy, Virginia also sees some individual growth, eventually learning to facilitate abortions as well, so that they can help more women than ever before.
Through the necessity of using a white, upper-class woman like Joy as the narrative driver, Call Jane often lacks the space to fully explore compounding issues like race and wealth disparity that no doubt played important roles in this period. Schore and Sethi’s script does touch on these issues but, as the story’s core focus is Joy’s journey of self-discovery, those moments often feel a little too brief.
After languishing on the Hollywood blacklist since 2017, it feels right that a film like Call Jane is finally getting its turn. The timing couldn’t be more perfect given the current state of women’s civil rights in countries like the United States, Iran, and, to some lesser degrees, even here in Australia, and it’s important for media of any kind to highlight the efforts of organisations like The Jane Collective, which was a functioning organisation in 1960s Chicago. They did, in fact, empower its members to learn how to perform abortions themselves so that they could assist low-income women and women of colour.
Movies like Call Jane are crucial. The issues of equality, sexism and misogyny are not isolated nor are they fully resolved. We hear the names and situations of women rattled off throughout the film; a mother of 8 about to be evicted, a cancer patient whose chemo will be stopped because of the pregnancy, a child molested and left to bear the burden, and we are reminded that abortion isn’t simple “emergency healthcare”, it’s just healthcare.
Call Jane, while a little narrow in its view at times, is extremely timely and topical. A reminder that lawmakers are still making attempts to dictate the rights and liberties of women and people with uteruses, and unfortunately in many places, they are succeeding.
Call Jane is available to watch on Amazon Prime Video now.