Elizabeth Banks & Sigourney Weaver ignite a timely pro-choice tale
Starring Elizabeth Banks & Sigourney Weaver
Directed by Phyllis Nagy
See it in theaters Oct. 28, 2022
With abortion rights rolled back earlier this year by the U.S. Supreme Court’s reversal of the landmark legislation Roe v. Wade, the timing is perfect for this movie about a group of female activists who made it possible in the 1960s for women to safely terminate their pregnancies during a pre-Roe time when abortion was outlawed as a criminal act.
The film, the directorial debut of Phyllis Nagy (who received an Oscar nomination for her screenplay for the critically praised Carol in 2015), benefits greatly from the presence of two top-tier actors, Elizabeth Banks and Sigourney Weaver. They’re a dynamic duo whose interplay generates the sparks and the sizzle for the depiction of the proto-pro-choice organization known as the Janes, an underground Chicago collective run by women, for women.
Banks, whose impressive resume also includes directing and producing, again shows her versatility and comfort in any kind of genre or format, be it lite and fluffy or heavy and hefty—from the ribald comedy of Movie 43, Wet Hot American Summer and The Happytime Murders to the YA dystopias of The Hunger Games, playing Beach Boy Brian Wilson’s romantic interest in Love & Mercy or slipping into her recurring roles on TV’s Modern Family and Mrs. America. Here she stars as Joy, a suburban homemaker who becomes involved with the Janes after finding out her pregnancy has life-threatening complications. It could literally kill her to deliver another baby.
Weaver, known to legions of moviegoers for her roles in the Alien, Avatar and Ghostbusters franchises, plays Virginia, the firebrand figurehead of the collective, who welcomes Joy as a client, then ushers her into deeper involvement with the group. Eventually, Joy is assisting the clinic’s cocky, somewhat creepy “doctor” (Cory Michael Smith, who played the Riddler on the Fox TV series Gotham) in the procedure room. Soon she’s performing the abortions herself.
Women all over Chicago come to know that when they are unable to get what they need anywhere else, they can “call Jane.”
Because abortion can put you in jail, the Janes operate as back-alley subversives, paying local mobsters for a place to work and for protection from police raids. Joy keeps her activities with the Janes a secret from her lawyer husband (Chris Messina), their teenage daughter (Grace Edwards) and her widowed next-door neighbor (Kate Mara). All that time she’s gone from the house? Joy says she’s taking an art class.
But what she’s doing—and hiding—becomes pitch-perfect clear when an undercover cop (John Magaro, from the movies First Cow, The Many Saints of Newark, The Big Short and Not Fade Away, and also in Carol) shows up at her home to ask a few questions.
Wunmi Mosaku might look familiar; the Nigerian actor has been featured in roles on TV’s Lovecraft Country, Loki, Temple and Luther. She plays the Janes’ only member “of color,” who pushes the group toward taking in more women who cannot afford to pay the steep procedure fees—and who often happen to be Black.
And mostly hidden under that nun smock, as Sister Mike, is Aida Turtoro, who played Tony’s sister, Janice, on all seven seasons of The Sopranos.
The movie is a tidy, trim, modest little tale about a very messy, moving-and-shaking time, back in 1968. Streets were roiling with Vietnam war protestors, women’s lib was gaining traction, the Black Panthers were on the move, and a room full of cigarette-smoking doctors could smugly dismiss a pregnant woman by telling her that her unborn baby’s life is more precious than her own, forcing her to find someone else—or some other way—to end her pregnancy. In Call Jane, we meet some of those women and hear about many more: rape victims, pregnant young teens, sexually harassed office workers coerced into sex with their bosses.
Thank goodness we’ve moved on from those dark, repressive days…right?
This cautionary ‘60s snapshot ends on a hopeful woman-power coda, where Virginia, Joy and the other Janes celebrate the 1972 Supreme Court decision that finally made abortion legal. But they note that there is still more work to do, other issues to tackle, other mountains to climb.
And sometimes, as we know, some mountains must be climbed again.
Call Jane is a pointed reminder that, like the old saying goes, women’s work is never done—alas.