Private Life (2018)

“We wanted to ask you about your eggs.”

There’s an inherently uncomfortable weirdness to watching a film titled Private Life. Engaging with cinema is – whether done in a theater or from the comfort of your home – a naturally voyeuristic activity, observing the lives of whoever/whatever happens to be filling the screen, and with this film we watch as an older couple desperately tries over and over again to get pregnant. Private Life, with its heartbreak and its hilarity, is so honest and observed that you could almost sell it as an unstaged, unmitigated reality show. Sure, it’s a piece of fiction, but I can’t help but believe that some versions of these exact same people exist out in this world. That’s quite the accomplishment.

They live somewhere in New York. Rachel (Kathryn Hahn in her best performance to date) is an author and Richard (Paul Giamatti), once a burgeoning voice in the theater community, now runs a marginal pickle business. Nothing about their marriage is very sour or sweet, but like Richard’s main source of income, everything comes packed with a little bite of vinegar. What makes Private Life work as well as it does is that these two people know who they are and they rarely try to wear masks. They’re far past the prime and the twilight of their youth, and the clock isn’t slowing down in their favor; artificial insemination, IVF, and adoption have successfully failed them each time. Fertility is their shared fantasy until Sadie (Kayli Carter) comes to crash the apartment for a while.

Sadie’s their niece, an artistic college student with a passion for literature. She brings a youthful presence to the film and to their home – Carter, so wonderful here, reminded me of Greta Gerwig’s whimsical approach in Frances Ha and Mistress America – which invigorates the struggling couple at the core. Sadie hears their plight, volunteers to donate her eggs, and a surrogate family is born before a possible child is ever conceived. We expect Sadie’s parents to object; Charlie (John Carroll Lynch) looks for positives in the situation but is overcome by his wife Cynthia’s (Molly Shannon) disdain. Things come to a head and a fine line draws a clear divide. Private Life tests boundaries and walks a tricky tightrope with its plot, and despite its occasional darkness, the film is remarkable, perhaps unsustainable in its disposition. At least they try.

While it’s a bit too similar to her outstanding 2007 film The Savages (one could argue they’re companion pieces of sorts), writer/director Tamara Jenkins nonetheless delivers the type of NY-centric picture you’d expect from the likes of Ira Sachs. Similar to him, Jenkins is specific and obsessed by the little details that make these people who they are, and that opens the doors to one of the more engaging, accessible movies you’ll see this year. I did have issues with the script’s structure; the film’s inconsistent use of title cards, serving as individual breaks in the story, lacks clear rhyme or reason. I fear that despite being on Netflix, too few people will see this film. That they’ll miss out on its sharp humor, its cutting drama, and its sense of confusion. Private Life shows us that you don’t have to be a parent to have natural paternal instincts, and even then, that it’s okay to give something another go after you’ve sworn yourself over to surrender. To keep going and to persevere. It’s a thoughtful, hopeful picture.

“Let’s get pregnant, shall we?”

Rating: 4 out of 5

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