There’s a moment at the conclusion of Rachel Carey’s Ask for Jane wherein text praises the real life subjects at the heart of the feature who did the work so no woman would ever have to do it again. Well, if you’ve been following the news this week and what’s been happening in the state of Georgia than those words will read as incredibly disappointing. Who knows if in a few years we won’t be back to doing the work the Jane Collective started doing in the ’60s. If anything that heinous bill should make Ask for Jane mandatory viewing. Carey’s feature film debut may be limited by a low-budget but the story demands to be told and seen by the widest audiences possible.
In 1969 Chicago a group of college women, frustrated with the lack of access to birth control and other societal pressures, band together to help other women get access to abortion services. Known as the Janes, the women risk their lives and are eventually threatened with 110 years in prison for their efforts.
Reading that plotline makes the Janes sound like superheroes and for Carey and collaborator Cait Cortlyou, they were. The Jane Collective worked from 1969 through the legalization of abortion in 1973, helping pregnant women receive access to safe and clean abortion providers. Eventually, seven of them were arrested for “conspiracy to commit murder” – in Chicago at the time if more than three people discussed abortion that was the law – and eventually acquitted. The fact that these women’s names aren’t included alongside other freedom fighters in America is sad, especially in the times we live in.
Carey and Cortlyou’s story isn’t necessarily based on these specific women, but is a loose amalgamation of all the things the Janes did as well as the culture they grew up in. Interspersed amongst the Jane Collective and the story of its leader, Rose (Cortlyou), are moments involving women throughout the area. One teenage girl discovers she’s pregnant and immediately drinks rate poison, believing a quarter cup will give her a miscarriage while keeping her alive; another woman discovers the doctors won’t give her a life-saving operation for fear it might harm her fetus. Even Rose herself goes to her local doctor to get birth control, only to be told she needs her husband’s permission. What Carey does so skillfully is show that even if women don’t necessarily need an abortion, the way the world was designed in the ’60s kept them down regardless, keeping them chaste and confined and fated to have their bodies belong to someone else.
Cortlyou’s Rose, along with all the other actresses, feel like facsimiles of countless other faceless women, giving them a voice for the first time. Cortlyou is sweet and sensitive as Rose. She has the seemingly picture-perfect life with a boyfriend and a dream, but her work within the Collective ends up threatening all that. It’s a simplistic narrative but effective in giving the audiences’ a regular woman to anchor to. The more interesting performances though come from various side characters, particularly Cody Horn’s Janice. Horn might not have been effective in Magic Mike, but her hardened exterior works fantastically here, where Janice is tough because of various traumas in her life. Watching her interactions with her mother, though minor in the grand scheme of things, shows a complete arc and reminds the audience of how the various generations of women that came before have dealt with these issues. Chloe Levine’s Barb also puts a face on the oft-maligned single mother, giving it a renewed strength despite the character’s confused honesty.
There are definitely limitations to the story, generally in soundtrack and the simplicity of the script. With audiences’ being so used to hearing The Chamber Brothers or Jimmie Hendrix, it’s noticeable that Ask for Jane lacks the Hollywood veneer. At the same time Carey’s script does suffer from feeling slight at times, like a reenactment, but it’s easy to see those as technical trials. If the film had a serious cash infusion it could build on what it’s missing but the story itself is unflappable. Watching these women do the work of not just being a shoulder to cry on but actually learning about the abortion procedure is amazing. These women were both giving women access and doing what midwives have been doing for years.
There’s so much history that Carey is infusing her that this review threatens to become a historical analysis. Suffice it to say whether you’re a woman or a male ally, Ask for Jane NEEDS to be on your watch list. It’s impossible to see mainstream Hollywood tackle something like this with as much interest, sensitivity and compassion as Rachel Carey does. Cortlyou and Horn are amazing. This must be seen!
Ask for Jane comes out May 17th.