“Call Jane” opens with this scene, and while it doesn’t connect explicitly with the main plotline it’s an example of what the film does really well (and there could be more of it). Directed by Phyllis Nagy, with a script by Hayley Schore and Roshan Sethi, “Call Jane” takes place before Roe v. Wade, where women were left with no choice but to move into illegal and dangerous territory in order to make the choices they needed to make about their own bodies. (The timing of “Call Jane” is eerie, to say the least.) Joy’s personal journey is important—and central—but, just like in the first scene, it takes place in a larger context, a context Joy has been able to avoid thus far. Through her own circumstances, she is drawn into a wider space where she finds capabilities that she never knew she had. In other words, “Call Jane” is not just the story of one woman. This is in the film’s favor.
Joy and Will have a happy marriage, overall, and a teenage daughter named Charlotte (Grace Edwards). Joy is pregnant again and she can tell something’s not right. Her doctor breaks the bad news: she has developed congestive heart failure, and the only way to reverse it would be (long pause) “therapeutic termination.” Joy has a 50/50 chance of surviving the pregnancy. Joy and Will’s comfortable complacent world is thrown into chaos. To get approval for the “therapeutic termination,” the couple has to meet with the hospital board (all men). Joy comes with a bright smile and bearing a plate of cookies. The men talk about her as though she is not there and vote unanimously against the life-saving procedure. Joy doesn’t want to die. Will is trying to hope for the best, but keeps saying things like, “I wish I could fix this!” He can’t.
Purely by chance, Joy sees a flier pasted up on a telephone pole: “Pregnant? Need help? Call Jane!”
This is Joy’s entryway into the Jane Collective, a group of women in Chicago who formed an underground organization to help women get safe abortions (complete with aftercare). (“The Janes,” a documentary released in June of this year, tells the story of this group). Joy makes the call. A woman named Gwen (Wunmi Mosaku) picks her up, makes her put on a blindfold, and drives her to a location, where entryway is granted after a secret knock. The “procedure” costs $600, and the doctor, Gwen informs Joy, has a horrible bedside manner but “he’s the best we’ve got.” Dr. Dean (Cory Michael Smith) lives up to his reputation. Afterwards, Joy is blindfolded again and brought to another location, where she meets the rest of the “Janes.” The leader is Virginia (Sigourney Weaver), a battle-scarred veteran of all kinds of cultural and political wars. She is tough, practical, and practiced at negotiating with shady characters, including the Mob (who provide low rents for their secret locations as well as, presumably, protection). Joy keeps insisting she’s fine to leave, but Virginia lays down the law, and explains to her exactly what is happening to her body, and what she can expect in the coming days.