Even before last year’s Supreme Court overturning of Roe v. Wade, a recent international surge in films about abortion rights and the endangerment thereof — from period pieces like “Happening” to present-day portraits like “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” — almost seemed to anticipate such a devastating blow. In America in particular, where talk of abortion access has always been snarled up in extreme religious rhetoric and eternal red-blue division, it has never been a subject to be treated complacently. Urgent and unvarnished, Tracy Droz Tragos’ documentary “Plan C” is an early entry in what might be considered post-Roe cinema, focusing less on pro-choice ideology than on the practicalities of ensuring choice in a system increasingly stacked against the idea.
Having premiered at Sundance last month — with SXSW next on its festival tour — “Plan C” arrives seven years after Tragos’ Emmy-nominated documentary “Abortion: Stories Women Tell,” which centered the individual narratives of women choosing to undergo abortion for a range of reasons. That’s a long time in abortion law. Released into a changed environment for reproductive rights, Tragos’ latest shifts tack from the personal to the systemic, and puts the spotlight not on the people receiving abortions but those enabling them: specifically, the healthcare professionals and helpers of the eponymous Plan C, a grassroots collective dedicated to the countrywide distribution of medication abortion.
That said, as Plan C founders Francine Coeytaux and Elisa Wells are quick to stress in talking-head interviews, they don’t wish to be seen as first-hand agents of abortion: “We are not providers,” Wells says. “We share information and data.” That distancing and distinction are crucial to the survival of an organization that often uses loopholes and workarounds to help pregnant people in states where abortion pills are effectively illegal, despite having been approved by the FDA — with pharmacies having been granted permission to dispense them earlier this year. A number of the Plan C workers and volunteers interviewed here do so anonymously, with their faces obscured or voices distorted; in their line of work, the stakes and need for subterfuge are still perilously high.
Though Tragos opens her film with a brief, bullet-point rundown of how abortion law has changed in recent years, “Plan C” is predominantly a present-tense, forward-looking affair, concerned principally with how two recent, drastic shifts in circumstance — the Roe v. Wade reversal, and the global pandemic — have changed the status of groups like this one, and the options available to them. Most momentously, the pandemic occasioned the breakthrough of medication abortion being sent by mail; in another clandestine move, Plan C sets up mobile clinics in unmarked vans to reach people in states where they can’t otherwise access help, with the internet providing the necessary connecting information.
The mostly female team behind Plan C are a pragmatic bunch, fixated on simple problem-solving rather than heavily rhetorical activism. They accept the suggestion that they’re “revolutionaries,” but make little of it: “Anarchists look for moments of breakdown in society as an opportunity to create change,” shrugs one mild-mannered doctor. “If that’s your definition of an anarchist, that’s who I am.” For Coeytaux, an activist whose previous achievements include lobbying for the over-the-counter availability of Plan B (or the morning-after pill) in the U.S., the goal is for their work to someday seem entirely mundane: serving a basic need, not fighting for the impossible.
For a study of a group that views itself first and foremost as an information resource, the film’s own factual gathering can be a little scattered: Key Plan C figures can blur together in this broad overview, while adjacent organizations like Just the Pill or the Miscarriage and Abortion Hotline are namedropped with little sense of their place in the bigger picture. Tragos and editor Meredith Raithel Perry occasionally zoom out a little too much, as cursory montages skip through such headline events as Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, Joe Biden’s election victory and the Capitol riots: Viewers hardly need the reminder, when screen time could be given over to a more nuts-and-bolts examination of Plan C’s day-to-day operations. But if this urgent, quietly angry doc feels both hurried and harried at certain points, that just speaks to the moment: Time is not a luxury anyone has in this business.