Private Life is an intimate drama we’ve seen before, but it leads to so many provocative questions about the individual versus the family.
Two decades after directing the funny, subversive, and feminist-focused feature Slums of Beverly Hills, Tamara Jenkins takes another look at people in a bustling city trying to deal with societal and personal expectations. Anchored by a triumvirate of wonderful acting turns from Kathryn Hahn, Paul Giamatti and newcomer Kayli Carter, Private Life tells a familiar story about educated people with humanity and humor.
Rachel and Richard (Hahn and Giamatti) are somewhat successful New York yuppies who, in their 40s, are finally ready to have a baby. Unfortunately, fertility is an issue, and after struggles with IVF and adoption the two are at their wit’s end. They’re encouraged to try to find a “donor egg” in which to have a child, and enlist the help of their young, wayward niece Sadie (Carter), who ends up becoming the child the couple never had.
The story about an educated, white, upper-crust couple living in a major city and navigating the simplicity of life has been focused on by numerous indie directors, and it’s hard not to see this as such, especially when compared to Jenkins’ previous feature. In fact, it could be said the bar is set too high. There’s certainly a lot to love about Private Life, but it’s hard not to feel, “been there, done that.”
In her first film since the 2007 drama The Savages, Jenkins, who wrote the script, does a lot to deconstruct the nature of IVF, a medical process that most films gloss over. Broken up into various stages – “The Transfer,” “The Retrieval” – the movie rips away at the idea that IVF is something simple; take a shot and out pops a baby. Not only do Richard and Rachel struggle to come up with $10,000 just to complete a round, but they open the door to criticism from doctors and their family. At the same time, their attempts at adoption have yielded something far more painful, the emotional manipulation of young girls who might change their mind. Jenkins lays out the fact that having a baby is hard, and anyone who says otherwise is either lying or too young to realize their error.
The first scene introduces the couple with Richard jabbing a needle into Rachel’s side, a sharp reminder of how routine this has become. The couple acknowledges that, by this point, it’s a chore. If they were to quit now, how would they reconcile with how much money they’ve spent, how much their marriage has crumbled? What would they do with themselves without this quest giving their life meaning? Jenkins nimbly explores the societal expectation to have a child, alongside one’s personal expectations for adulthood. For Rachel, especially, the fear of being unable to conceive has much to do with her femininity. Does it make her less of a woman is she can’t have kids? And what does it say about her career and life that she’s waited so long?
Sadie’s arrival marks a rebirth for everyone. The college dropout hasn’t lived life, and what she has experienced is aimless and spontaneous. She’s content to call out hipsters and those she believes are phony, but it comes from a place of naivete. So when she helps Richard and Rachel, the two people who don’t begrudge her for not having it all figured out, it’s similarly ill-defined. The couple gets a chance to shape a child, helping Sadie decide what she wants, but there’s a commingling that’s frightening. When Sadie gets sick, the couple has to admit they’re not her parents, and yet they are. Carter is pitch-perfect as Sadie. She’s a young adult we don’t often see in film, one who isn’t nubile and coy but who understands life as much as she can. She isn’t looked down on because she’s young, we just know she lacks experience.
It helps to have actors able to convey the rich backstory of this couple that creates Jenkins’ myriad questions. Kathryn Hahn reminds audiences’ of her dual abilities as comedienne and dramatic actress. As Rachel she’s twisted and complicated, drawn to Sadie as a do-over for herself, yet their relationship is never competitive. Rachel never sees Sadie as an enemy, but instead turns the anger inward, on herself. When Rachel finally snaps, it gives the audience Hahn’s patented brand of trash-talking humor, but it comes from a real place. She’s complemented by Giamatti’s Richard, a man who doesn’t really know what to do. He understands his place is to be supportive and offer comfort, but even there he’s unable. When he tries to come to Sadie’s defense at the fertility clinic, it ends up embarrassing him more than anyone.
John Carroll Lynch and Molly Shannon also give smart turns as the couple’s extended family. Where Richard and Rachel are isolated in their big city living, filled with books and academia, Lynch’s Charlie and Shannon’s Cynthia have gone the nuclear family route: raising two daughters in suburbia, where their only conflict is determining what everyone wants from the local cafe.
Private Life is an intimate drama we’ve seen before, but it leads to so many provocative questions about the individual versus the family. As someone who recently hit a life milestone, watching this led me to question so much about myself. Jenkins has her finger on the pulse of what makes us tick, and let’s hope we don’t have to wait another decade to see more from her.