Director: Phyllis Nagy
Cast: Elizabeth Banks, Sigourney Weaver, Chris Messina, Kate Mara, Wunmi Mosaku, Cory Michael Smith, Grace Edwards, John Magaro
Runtime: 2 hrs 2 mins
Rating: NC16 (Some Drug Use and Coarse Language)
Released By: Shaw Organisation
Opening Day: 23 February 2023
Synopsis: Chicago, 1968. As a city and the nation are poised on the brink of violent political upheaval, suburban housewife Joy leads an ordinary life with her husband and daughter. When Joy’s pregnancy leads to a life-threatening condition, she must navigate a medical establishment unwilling to help. Her journey to find a solution to an impossible situation leads her to the “Janes,” a clandestine organization of women who provide Joy with a safer alternative — and in the process, change her life.
Though probably intended in the wake of the #MeToo movement to celebrate a group of women who banded together to help their fellow gender in need, ‘Call Jane’ is even more significant now given the Supreme Court’s decision last year to overturn its pivotal ‘Roe v Wade’ decision in 1973. Indeed, for the uninitiated, the ‘Jane’ here refers to the Jane Collective, a real-life clandestine Chicago group which had helped women secure safe but illegal abortions in the late 1960s prior to the seminal 1973 decision that established the constitutional right to an abortion.
Instead of a documentary on the collective itself, ‘Call Jane’ offers a story of a fictional character’s life-changing involvement with the group, starting from when she herself sought their help in order to terminate a potentially life-threatening pregnancy. As played by Elizabeth Banks, Joy is a sunny, upper-middle-class housewife who finds out after blacking out one evening while dancing to a Velvet Underground album from the collection of her 15-year-old daughter Charlotte (Grace Edwards) that she has a ‘congestive heart failure’ condition which places her at a 50/50 chance of dying during childbirth. Because abortion is criminalised in Illinois, Joy is forced to petition to an all-male hospital board to obtain one – and not surprisingly, is denied the procedure.
After failing to prove that she might be suicidal and cannot quite bringing herself to throw herself down the stairs, Joy starts looking for back-alley options, chancing upon a flier at a bus stop beckoning the pregnant and anxious to “call Jane”. Rightly so, the film spends a good amount of time detailing the process by which the organisation operates, including dispatching a driver to pick up Joy, requiring that she blindfold herself during the journey, collecting a $600 fee on the lift up to a nondescript apartment block where a doctor carries out the procedure, and recuperating at a residence that serves as the headquarters of the collective.
It is at the said residence where Joy meets Virginia (Sigourney Weaver), the head of the collective based on the real-life Jane founder Heather Booth. Besides Virginia, other memorable members of the collective include Gwen (Wunmi Mosaku), a Black advocate who argues that the procedure is too expensive for women of lower-income, and Sister Mike (Aida Turturro), a nun who is especially helpful at convincing those feeling conflicted due to their religious beliefs. When they come up short of one in their regular pool of drivers, it is Virginia who reaches out to Joy for a favour to pay it forward to other women who are in similar predicaments as she was.
‘Call Jane’ covers a lot of territory within two hours. While sticking closely to Joy, writers Hayley Schore and Roshan Sethi draw out an elaborate coming-into-consciousness arc for her, which tracks how she goes from helping out the poker-faced doctor (Cory Michael Smith) to calm the jittery nerves of women on the operating chair to blackmailing the doctor into teaching her the procedure itself after discovering that he isn’t a licensed medical professional. Along the way, first-time director Phyllis Nagy – who is best known for her Academy-Award nominated screenplay for ‘Carol’ – illustrates the sometimes flawed, messy ways in which the Jane activists operate, the larger racial/ political landscape that they are inevitably a part of, as well as the legal implications of their actions, however noble.
Despite the potentially grim and heavy-going subject matter, Nagy tells Joy’s story with plenty of heart and humour. Never mind the challenges or the untidiness of their ways, there is never less than purpose in what Joy, Virginia and the rest of the Jane activists do, and it is invigorating to see how these characters do so with wit, intelligence and knowhow. Just as satisfying is watching Banks, Weaver and Mosaku take on the patriarchy with unbridled conviction, whilst sparring amongst themselves on race and intersectionality, painting a vibrant and compelling portrait of courage and compassion in equal measure.
It is to the filmmakers’ credit that ‘Call Jane’ isn’t preachy or frivolous, bursting instead with bright, vibrant energy as it offers a valuable look at the pre-Roe v. Wade era in the United States from the female perspective. Thanks to the sharp performances by the stars, there is never a less than engaging moment throughout the film, which manages to be nothing less than a crowd-pleasing, feel-good movie of personal empowerment. Especially in the wake of the recent Supreme Court decision to overturn ‘Roe v Wade’, ‘Call Jane’ packs unlikely relevance and timeliness about the right to decide one’s fate as well as the mettle to give others the same agency.
(Bright, vibrant and compelling, this story of female empowerment is a relevant and timely portrait of courage and compassion)
Review by Gabriel Chong