Review: Private Life


Writer & Director: Tamara Jenkins

One of the downsides of being an amateur reviewer with small children at home is that I usually see movies after they’ve been released. Though I try to avoid reviews of movies that I know I’m going to see, it was hard to avoid the buzz on Private Life, Tamara Jenkin’s first feature in eleven years about a couple dealing with infertility. It seemed like every podcast I listened to had something positive to say about it, extolling the quality of the writing and the storytelling and the splendid characterization and the wonderful acting. I second all that, but in the end, I had trouble getting into this movie. My attention wandered. A half-hour in, my husband and I both remarked that it seemed like a lot more time had passed, but not because it was slowly paced. Instead we felt like we had already been dragged through so much pain and indecision. The screenplay of Private Life is very carefully constructed, and I wondered if Jenkins was trying to create in the viewer some of the feelings of frustration and detachment that her characters are experiencing. 

When we meet Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) and Richard (Paul Giamatti), the middle-aged couple at the center of this film, we immediately learn that they have been struggling for years with infertility. Sex and emotional intimacy have been replaced by hormone shots and fraught discussions about whether or not they should adopt. A flashback shows how a previous attempt at adoption has left them heartbroken and fragile. They’ve been trying to have a child for so long that they’re not even sure they want to do it anymore. At the same time, it’s almost easier to keep trying — to keep spending thousands of dollars and employing riskier strategies — than to make a decision.

The movie picks up speed, somewhat, when Rachel and Richard invite their step-niece, Sadie (Kayli Carter), to come and live them. Sadie is a Bard drop-out and wannabe writer who looks up to Rachel and Richard because they have forged an artistic life in the East Village. She sees them as the polar opposite of her mother, a stay-at-home parent in the suburbs. When Rachel and Richard broach the awkward question of whether or not she would be willing to be an egg donor, she guilelessly agrees, not understanding what she’s getting into. Rachel and Richard don’t really know what they’re proposing, either. They barely know Sadie; she’s Richard’s sister-in-law’s daughter from a previous marriage. (Not an easy kinship relationship to explain, yet Private Life gets it across quite easily.)

Rachel, Richard, and Sadie form a tentative, temporary family, and it’s in these moments that Private Life shines, giving glimpses of a domestic situation that is layered with unexamined motives, emotions, and disappointments. Sadie’s presence in their household can sometimes bring out the best in Rachel and Richard, while at other times, Sadie makes the apartment feel even smaller and more claustrophobic. Sadie is exceptionally well-written, a twenty-five year old who is on the immature side but earnestly trying to grow up. She can be as oblivious as a teenager in one moment and thoughtful and wise in the next. Sadie’s mother, Cynthia, played by Molly Shannon, was also well-written. She could have been a cliche of the uptight, disapproving parent, but she’s shown to be more conflicted and contradictory. Molly Shannon plays her with a combination of wit and bewilderment.

Ironically, Rachel and Richard were a little harder to get to know than the minor characters, maybe because we meet them at the most difficult time of their life, when they are most detached from their emotions. I didn’t find them “unlikeable,” just distant. It was until the very end that I felt close to them, and again, I think this may have been Jenkins aim as a screenwriter, because at the very end, she gives us a glimpse of what Rachel and Richard are like when they are at ease with one another.

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