Richard and Rachel want to start a family. After many attempts and not being able to conceive on their own, they look at the means of assisted reproduction and other therapies to finally fulfil their wish to parent. When things go awry, they feel hopeless and in a very confused, exposed moment of their marriage. Like an act of serendipity, their step-niece Sadie moves in with them, being in a rut herself, dropping out of college and wanting to find inspiration. After seeing Sadie as so self-aware, kind, and just all around perfect, Richard and Rachel reconsider their fertility endeavours. Tamara Jenkins’ Private Life is unmistakingly poignant, revealing the truths in our blunders and journeys to rediscovery, hope, fulfilment, and wrapping those around us in two hours of a tender embrace.
Paul Giamatti, Kathryn Hahn, and Kayli Carter pull at our heartstrings and it’s quite easy to understand how. Jenkins’ script is brilliantly natural, giving every character, even Molly Shannon’s supporting role as Sadie’s mother, a fully realized characterization with real-world emotions and troubles. At one turn in the film, Molly Shannon’s character even struggles with all the commotion on her plate while also dealing with personal anxieties. Just as you might think of her as a time filler, she’s actually cared for by way of Jenkins’ admiration for womanly worries and its endless obstacles. Here is the role of a mother who so desperately wishes her daughter would grow up, but who is also not immune to that same sense of actual inevitability.
Giamatti and Hahn are clearly one of the most surreal and endearing onscreen couples of recent time, dialling up their characters’ natural charm and klutzy, honest marital mishaps, and somehow letting us in on the way it pains them. At one of their worst times, the doctor hands them a pamphlet that reads, ‘Sometimes it takes three to make a family,’ and it sends Rachel into a frustration, feeling left out at the thought of not carrying the child on her own. After years of trying and having awkward encounters with adoption counsellors and having to continuously inject hormone therapies, it’s like they’re about to throw in the towel.
In the film, you’ll quickly realise how the “private life” of this married couple culminates into something very sincere and carefully paced, like a comfortable high in knowing these things aren’t always so clear cut. Even though there’s a running thread about their struggles with fertility, it doesn’t seem to have a misstep in taking us from one empathetic point of view to another. It’s not so much about their wish to get pregnant, than the rekindlement of warmth and how the introduction of Sadie as a means of salvation affects the story first-hand. This comes along with observations of their own lives, the golden times, aging, marriage, individual transparency, and even the notions of giving up on all of them at once. Even at its most theatrical of scenes, it slices up humour at a moment’s notice, crafting its unique execution. These are all reasons to pop this film on and enjoy its wonderful understanding of life at its most desperate and quirkily beautiful moments.
Experiencing infertility has its woes. Jenkins pulls bits and pieces from her own life’s experience with treatments and infuses that realness into the film, disarming it of its unconventional, preconceived notions. In part, it’s a story about womanhood, but one that tangles in daily social concerns, curiosities, and weaknesses as universal as they come to any one of us. Richard, who once ran a theatre company, now works at a pickle-making company. Rachel, an author all her life, is working to publish her latest piece of work. They’re coming into assisted reproduction routes with a tired, hopeless endearment. As they’re both over 40, it’s quite easy to understand where their mindsets are at. Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn are national treasures. Even at this couple’s defeats, they’re genuinely moving.
The many relationships of the film, the little moments shared with every other character, rests on the reliability and trust of its tender script. Whether it’s Rachel hanging out with Sadie—who’s half dressed and full of wanderlust—reminiscing her youthful self and seeing it in the girl in front of her, or the way Sadie is confiding to Richard that him and Rachel feel more like her parents than her own—the film wastes no precious moment.
Private Life says so much in scenes where words are minimal. The interpersonal dialogue feels quietly constructed, easing their poignancy and honesty into you. It’s inviting you to follow Richard and Rachel and be their confidant as a viewer. Throughout their most vulnerable moments and surprises, it leads on a keen, witty sense of their lives, fulfilled or otherwise. Sadie’s inclusion does wonders as much as it is truly bittersweet to the crystallisation of Richard and Rachel’s fertility voyage. Tamara Jenkins’ film is funny, gracefully poignant, and embedded in a wonderful, closely-knit ensemble. It’s a quietly magnificent film.
Directed by: Tamara Jenkins
Starring: Kathryn Hahn, Paul Giamatti, Kayli Carter