Movie Review: Life Before Roe v. Wade — “Call Jane”

The doctor is young, without anything resembling a comforting bedside manner.

“I’m scared,” the patient says. “I know” is all he’s got for her.

But at least he walks her through what he’s doing, step by step.

“You will feel it. And it will hurt a bit.”

And he finishes with a warning. “You can’t make any noise. No matter what.”

Welcome to the late 1960s, when women had to master forging their husband’s signature just to cash a check, when the bright promise of college was typically abandoned for that “Mrs.” degree, and when abortion was illegal, even when the pregnant woman’s life was in imminent peril.

All because a bunch of men — hospital medical boards, the courts, spouses and baby daddies — said so.

“Call Jane” is a moving and surprisingly uplifting period piece about America’s pre-sexual revolution past, a late ’60s story of women who organized to ensure that the most personal and difficult decision many women will ever face was hers to make, with their help.

When all else failed in 1968 Chicago, all that was left was to “Call Jane.”

Director Phyllis Nagy, who scripted “Carol” and directed the chilling “Mrs. Harris” TV movie, brings us a sober, sturdy, well-cast and acted account of life in The Bad Ol’Days, a movie that never forgets it’s entertainment even as it never loses track of the fact that it’s also a “cause.”

Elizabeth Banks plays Joy, an upper middle class Chicago housewife with a loving lawyer-husband (Chris Messina), a daughter who just turned 15 (Grace Edwards) and another baby on the way. But this pregnancy turns deadly when it leads to cardiomyopathy.

The most chilling scene in the film is when she and her husband get to sit in on her hospital’s medical board meeting where they decide her fate, literally a group of 50-70something men who ignore the justifiably-frightened patient right in front of them.

“A healthy baby? That’s it? No regard for her mother?”

The film’s slow first act follows a shellshocked Joy as her “no shortcuts” straight-arrow husband is no help to her as she is forced to pretend to be a suicide risk (“crazy”) to be granted emergency surgery. One of the psychotherapists she who must sign off on that slips her a “plan B” address for a back-alley abortion, and his receptionist throws one more option her way.

“Just fall down a staircase! It worked for me!”

All that horror is build-up to the film’s second most chilling scene, the one related at the beginning of this review. At every turn, Joy finds herself confronted by cavalier men who treat her like a second class citizen and her life as something of little consequence.

But that hand-bill taped to a mailbox in the back alley side of town offers a lifeline.

“Pregnant? Anxious? Call Jane.”

That’s how Joy obtains her illegal abortion. That’s how she’s introduced to the secretive standard operating procedure of this “service” for woman like her. A blind-folded car ride (Wunmi Mosaku plays the Black feminist militant of the team), a clean office, a greedy young doctor and — shockingly — a support group the moment this “twenty minute procedure” is over, reassuring her by telling her everything she needs to know.

“Eat, eat,” the matriarchal Virginia (Sigourney Weaver) barks at her. “Then sleep. And then scram!”

Virginia even makes a follow-up call, checking on the patient. And then a second call comes in — she has a sick driver, here’s the address, and before Joy can blurt much more than “Wait, WHAT?” she’s in — picking up patients, sitting in on the group decisions of who “Jane” can help, making the leap to physically comforting patients and more.

The screenplay by Hayley Schore and Roshan Sethi finds heroism in what these women are doing, and lets their characters see the humor in their primitive times. Women were just starting to wake up to the injustice of their lot. But the ignorance pre-sexual revolution America lived under is nothing but laughable.

“I didn’t even know you could get pregnant like that,” one young patient complains. “I mean, we were standing up!”

The script takes pains to emphasize the “no judgement” credo of this service. Every woman’s story is different, and even the most gullible and “careless” is worthy of empathy.

Little is made of Joy’s concern for what sort of limited horizons her daughter faces in 1968 America, and the domestic strain that came with the feminist revolution is given a glib moment or two. Kate Mara plays a widowed neighbor whom we figure will play a bigger role, but doesn’t.

An explanation of abortion being something women have known about and helped each other with, with or without doctors, throughout history would make some of the directions the story takes go down easier.

But “Call Jane” still manages to get its female empowerment and demystify “the procedure” message across in an affirming, witty way, mostly due to Banks’ ability to make even the most entitled beautiful blonde empathetic and Weaver’s droll mastery of “No nonsense” as a character brand.

There isn’t time to get into the seismic cultural changes that the decade was famous and infamous for — a snippet of “Vietnam,” a hint of the civil rights struggle, a recreation of the protests and riots surrounding Chicago hosting the Democratic National Convention.

But sometimes a single line is all it takes to cover that, and it belongs Virginia, the “Jane” ringleader, a veteran protestor turned hands-on activist who leans into all she’s doing and all she’s done, and speaks with wry candor and hopefulness to Joy’s wide-eyed daughter.

“I’m sorry about the ’60s, kid.”

Rating: R for some language and brief drug use

Cast: Elizabeth Banks, Sigourney Weaver, Chris Messina, Wunmi Mosaku, Cory Michael Smith, Grace Edwards and Kate Mara.

Credits: Directed by Phyllis Nagy, scripted by Hayley Schore and Roshan Sethi. A Roadside Attractions release.

Running time: 2:02

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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