Call Jane: a powerful, timely pro-choice drama

Though conservative in its form and aesthetics, Phyllis Nagy’s impassioned film feels strangely radical at a time when the accessibility of free, safe and legal abortions has once again come up for debate.

Call Jane (2022)

It’s 1968, and Joy (Elizabeth Banks) is a white housewife in the suburban sprawl of Chicago. On being denied an abortion that would prevent congenital heart failure, she contacts the Jane Collective, an organisation that sought in real life to provide terminations at a time when they were illegal across the entire US. She soon finds her life and politics changed in unanticipated ways.

From depicting spaghetti-cooking as an act of communal care to showing Jane members master the art of surgery, Call Jane takes us by the hand and leads us down the path of activism that Joy tentatively uncovers for herself. Given the Supreme Court’s overturning of Roe v. Wade earlier this year, ending Americans’ federal right to legal abortion services, it’s notable that the film presents women who are assured in their choices and who know what they need to live. Joy doesn’t agonise over the ‘right’ decision; the sole doubtful client is reluctant only because she fears the pain. Abortions are discussed and performed, bloodlessly, onscreen. It’s remarkable that Call Jane should feel radical in its commitment to the accessibility of free, safe and legal abortions in the year 2022.

In its form and aesthetics, the film is more conservative. The narrative unfolds as expected, with Joy’s husband Will (Chris Messina) and daughter Charlotte (Grace Edwards) becoming suspicious about Joy’s sudden interest in ‘art classes’. Visually, their austere home contrasts with the domestic bustle of the Jane Collective headquarters. And while the activist Jane women cook for and support one another, Joy’s widowed Republican neighbour, the predatory Lana, is waiting in the wings with a home-cooked casserole for Will. Moreover, inter-community conflicts about white privilege, which seem ripe for interrogation, are barely acknowledged in a script that could have done more to unravel tensions within the system that binds the women together. One of the many frustrating outcomes is that Wunmi Mosaku as Gwen, a key Jane activist, is underused throughout, as is Kate Mara as Lana.

If Call Jane’s narrative is largely paint-by-numbers, its closing scene eschews all the usual conventions of the fictionalised historical account. At a celebratory party to close down the Jane Collective after Roe v. Wade in 1973, members take turns to throw index cards on a fire as they read out the details of all the women they’ve helped. Director Phyllis Nagy judiciously refrains from inserting intertitles telling us what happened next. We are left with the names, the circumstances, the then-as-now cries for help, and the knowledge that there is so much more still to burn.

► Call Jane is part of the Debate strand at the 2022 London Film Festival; it is screening on 14 and 16 October.