There are a whole lot of cigarettes in “Call Jane,” a detail — along with flip bob hairstyles and polyester pantsuits — that demonstrates director Phyllis Nagy’s commitment to the late-’60s period, even as it shows that the movie isn’t trying to tell women what to do with their bodies. Inspired by true events, this Sundance-blessed abortion drama takes place more than 50 years ago, but it could hardly be more timely today, as the Supreme Court considers several cases with the potential to roll back the freedoms granted by Roe v. Wade. Set in 1968, half a decade before that decision, the movie tells the story of the Chicago-based network of activists who called themselves the Jane Collective — a clandestine group of women committed to helping other women find a safe way to get illegal abortions. As the tagline goes, “You’ve come a long way, baby.”
Who were the Janes? Well, there’s Virginia (Sigourney Weaver), a front-line feminist who’s stopped marching in order to make a real difference. Her character is loosely based on Jane founder Heather Booth, reimagined by co-writers Hayley Schore and Roshan Sethi. And there’s Gwen (Wunmi Mosaku), a Black Power advocate who argues their doctor is charging too much for lower-income women to afford the procedure (it costs a then-prohibitive $600). There’s even a nun named Sister Mike (Aida Turturro), who answers the phones and serves spaghetti to recovering patients.
Considering that none of its members is actually named Jane, the group seems uniquely suited to a rousing finale — you know, the “I am Spartacus” sort, where everyone stands in solidarity when one of their ranks is threatened. Nagy, who wrote the buttoned-up lesbian drama “Carol” for director Todd Haynes, doesn’t try for anything so manipulative as that. But she’s not being entirely true to the underlying situation either, stripping “Call Jane” of much of the conflict that would have made it dramatically interesting: the cops, doctors, husbands and other bad guys who might have broken up the organization are either absent or one-dimensional. (The problem at the time was that men were the ones deciding women’s health issues, including Roe v. Wade.)
The movie centers primarily on Joy (Elizabeth Banks), a model housewife in the “Bewitched” mold whose defense-attorney husband, Will (Chris Messina), has just been made partner. The couple have a teenage daughter, Charlotte (Grace Edwards), and another child on the way. And then comes the news that Joy has a heart condition that puts her at a 50/50 chance of dying during childbirth. The doctor is clear: she “cannot be pregnant.” Joy considers throwing herself down the stairs. She visits an illicit abortion clinic but chickens out. And then she sees the flyer: Call Jane. So she does.
Early in the film, Joy sees yippies protesting the establishment outside a downtown hotel and tells her husband, “You can feel a shifting current.” It’s safe to say, she’s about to get a little carried away. Over the course of the next two hours — in what might have made for a stronger miniseries — Joy undergoes a lifesaving abortion and winds up not just joining the Jane Collective but learning how to do the procedure so the women don’t have to keep relying on their under-qualified male doctor (Cory Michael Smith, who looks like “Risky Business”-era Tom Cruise in a lab coat).
That transformation — from docile conservative to active crusader for women’s reproductive rights — marks one hell of a character arc. It was smart of the filmmakers to start with an apolitical outsider and follow her through an overdue feminist awakening, rather than preaching to the most liberal members of the audience. Produced by Robbie Brenner (“Dallas Buyers Club”) and more than two dozen others, “Call Jane” shares that movie’s at-times astonishing true-story foundations, once again detailing the roundabout methods Americans must use to get the health care they need. But it lacks the same free-wheeling thrill.
After Joy’s procedure, Virginia calls to see how she’s recovering, then asks her a favor: They need someone to pick up a young woman in Joy’s neighborhood. Virginia’s the kind of person who won’t take no for an answer, and Weaver sells her concern and charisma 100%. Virginia may have started Jane with certain ideals, but she’s not immune to change, listening to the suggestions of others. Meanwhile, chaperoning an unmarried girl (who will later be a repeat customer), Joy sets aside her judgment and starts to acknowledge the infinite reasons someone might seek an abortion.
In the time it was active, the organization (further explored in the upcoming HBO documentary “The Janes,” also debuting at Sundance) facilitated an estimated 12,000 abortions. To some, that number might sound like genocide; to others, an underground revolution. “Call Jane” is not much concerned with the usual debates about unborn babies, focusing instead on a kind of sisterhood that brought together women of wide-ranging backgrounds. Even the widow next door, Lana (Kate Mara) — a Nixon-voting Republican who’s always got her nose in her neighbor’s business — surprises when the time comes. If Americans are ever going to change their minds about abortion, they need to start by being honest about just how many people are having them.
The female empowerment message comes through loud and clear in “Call Jane,” especially in Banks’ performance. What’s missing from the picture is the threat of discovery, the dangling sword of Damocles that might chasten anyone taking so much responsibility on themselves. Joy appears to have married the most oblivious man on the planet, pretending to go to art classes without ever producing so much as a single painting. The film shows the women using blindfolds and secret knocks to protect their locations, and the script repeatedly references how they enlist the mob for protection. But there’s hardly any sense that they could get caught — or worse, that complications from just one operation could mean complications for the whole operation. What these women accomplished in the years before the (all-male) Supreme Court’s 1973 decision was remarkable. But it couldn’t possibly have been this simple.