This can be a hard movie to watch, considering the recent developments in the world. “Call Jane” is a movie set in 1968 about an illegal organization’s efforts to provide women with safe abortions. One thing about this movie is that it says very little and lets the events speak for themselves. It is probably a wise route to take, considering that a lot has been said in the media about this topic. This is one instance where silence speaks louder than words. And yet, there is something very shallow about the movie. Anybody who has spent any time on Instagram news portals would know the message of “Call Jane.” Therefore, it is with a very heavy heart that we say that this movie, despite handling a topic with its due sensitivity, barely went below the surface. And from just a movie perspective, its pace certainly lags in some places. Let us go through the events of the film to better understand this.
“Call Jane” starts with a pregnant housewife, Joy, who is leading an idyllic life in the suburbs. She has a teenage daughter who has good friends and a successful husband who dotes on her. Life is going well until she learns that her pregnancy could have life-threatening implications for her. The doctor recommends a termination, but in a country where abortion is illegal, Joy must get the sanction of a number of lawyers and judges for it. Will takes her to his firm so that they may all ponder over her case, but it soon becomes clear that none of them have her best interests at heart. It is a room full of old white men, and we know how that goes. They ask the doctor whether there is a chance that Joy could survive the pregnancy and, upon getting an affirmative answer, agree that an abortion is not necessary. Joy even points out how no one seemed to ask her a single question when she was in the room, but she continued to be ignored. Having had enough, she leaves the room. The doctor suggests that she try convincing two psychiatrists that she is mentally insane. That would allow her to get the abortion she needs, but the plan fails as well. One of the receptionists in the office tells her to try falling down the stairs, as that worked for her. In her desperation, Joy attempts it but is unable to do so. Despite it all, Joy is determined to get an abortion. She withdraws money from her husband’s bank and goes to an illegal clinic. However, she is unable to go through with it due to the atmosphere of the place. While she is running out, she notices a poster for “Call Jane” that she believes could help her. She contacts them, and they tell her that they will pick her up.
The next day, a woman takes her there, blindfolded, and Joy gets her abortion done by a doctor named Dean. She is given her due aftercare at the clinic before she goes home. Joy tells her family that she lost the baby due to her cramping. After this seemingly tragic event, life starts moving on when Joy gets another call from Virginia from the clinic, following up on how she is feeling. When she assures them of her good health, she is asked for a favor: to pick up a girl from the neighborhood for the service. Joy is hesitant but brings her anyway. However, she is a little judgmental of this woman as she got pregnant because of an affair with her married boss. When she says as much to Virginia, she is told that if they started judging people, nobody would be free from the scope of it. Joy sees her own hypocrisy and starts dwelling on it.
Over the next few days, she becomes an important part of “Call Jane,” facilitating the pick-ups and drop-offs as well as assisting the doctor. It is an organization that helps but is not without its flaws, as not every woman in need can afford the exorbitant price of $600. This also gives rise to an important topic: the intersectionality of race within any feminist movement and how the exclusion of economics from the topic is nothing but a privilege of the few. However, after this discussion, Virginia cuts a deal with Dean to do at least two free abortions every week. Meanwhile, he encouraged Joy to assist more in the procedures as her presence seemed to be helping the patients. But Joy is more ambitious than that. She makes her way to the university that Dean claims to have studied at and retrieves a book from the library. She tells him that she knows that he is no doctor and has just learned this one procedure for his benefit. In exchange for her silence, he must teach her the procedure so that she can be more helpful. Though reluctant, Dean agrees, and soon enough, Joy picks it up from him. She asks Virginia to let her do this, but she is reluctant as this could be extremely risky. But when the number of callers increases for their services, they have to allow Joy.
Things are going well, and eventually, Charlotte comes to know about her mother’s side gig. She is not completely on board but promises to keep it quiet. But things seldom stay hidden, and a cop comes knocking at Joy’s door to inquire about their service. It looks like he is there to investigate them, but Joy catches on that he is also looking for help. She tells them their fee, and the cop leaves. But the cat is out of the bag in front of her family.
After the incident, Joy stops working with “Call Jane.” But it is evident that there are people still in need of her services. The lack of support from her daughter and husband had been stopping her all this time, but things changed when Virginia herself came to visit. She gives her a tape and asks her to listen to the women on it. Joy and Charlotte listen to the tapes, and her daughter has a moment when she sees the real-life intricacies of feminism. This prompts her to give her mother the green signal. But it’s not the same as before. Joy comes up with a plan and shows up to “Call Jane” with a pumpkin. She tells the group that she will teach them all how to perform that procedure and help them through it as much as they need, but that is going to be the limit of her involvement. To be fair, it is more than enough, and the group agrees. The next scene is five years later, in 1973. The group was raided, but they were able to get through it due to Will helping them through the court. Also, they are redundant now because women have been granted access to safe abortions by the court. Though the film doesn’t say it, it is a reference to the Roe vs. Wade case. “Call Jane” ends with Joy and Virginia joking that they must start addressing the issue of equal pay next.
As we said before, the feminism of “Call Jane,” though surface level, can make one think by its presentation, albeit in bits and pieces. We see it during the dinner conversation that Joy has with her family, where she points out that there isn’t much of a chance her husband could have taken up his “homely hobbies” in school because, as a man, he had other things to learn. But what would have been a hobby for him was a compulsion for her and her daughter. It is also seen when Dean recognizes Joy’s potential but still doesn’t consider her his equal; hence, he suggests that she be a nurse instead of a doctor. Another clear example of this is in the interaction between Will and their neighbor when after their kiss, she apologizes and says that it is just something she does: apologizing for everything. That is honestly something every woman does, apologizing for things to keep them conflict-free and smooth as part of their “womanly duties.”
The case of “Roe vs. Wade” established that a woman was allowed to terminate a pregnancy even after the fetus became viable. It was established that a woman had complete rights over her own body. When the judgment was recently overturned, it was a message for women across the country that their right to a life of their choice was second to the wishes of their duty to an unborn child. The scene where Joy is sitting in a room full of lawyers sets us on a train of thought. The world has always thought that a woman’s ultimate duty is keeping the house and bearing her husband’s children. She is never recognized as having an agency of her own; her life is supposed to be lived for others; in fact, that remains the definition of a “good woman” to this day. Therefore, when reproduction is considered a duty, why would it be considered a right to have any autonomy over her body? It is a sheer and belligerent lack of logic that continues to harm women to this day. “Call Jane” was set in 1968, more than half a century earlier. One would imagine that people’s mindsets would have progressed in that long a time, but we are still stuck there simply because the nature of power has not changed. Keeping women at a disadvantage enables the other person to be in a position of power, and that is the raw truth of the matter. We don’t know when that time will come when this matter does not need an explanation. We don’t expect it in our lifetime, but we also don’t have an option other than being hopeful.
The thing about movies based on ‘real-life issues of women’ is that, when the drudgery is anyway something we face on a daily basis, what must be our motivation to tune into a 2-hour long movie that further addresses it? As we said before, anyone who follows even a single social media activism page would grasp everything that was in “Call Jane.” That is not to say that it wasn’t sensitively handled. It was, but no new ground was broken. Maybe it is just us, but it can’t be denied that the daily fight for women to just exist is as exhausting as it is liberating.
There is a certain sense of discomfort that arises in us when we realize what the recent legal developments mean for scores of women out there. Of course, the movie was not seeking to make anyone comfortable, but it would have been better if they had focused more on the issue of intersectionality than just giving it a passing mention. Because isn’t that what cinema addressing social issues is supposed to do—make one think? A review of “Call Jane” would be that it is okay. There was nothing impactful about it except its reiteration of the need for women to have their reproductive rights to themselves, and for that reason, it is not bad either. This movie is basically “Lesson Pro-Choice 101,” and those are the people we can best recommend it to.
“Call Jane” is a 2022 Historical Drama film directed by Phyllis Nagy.
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