January 19, 2018
‘Private Life’ Review: Paul Giamatti & Kathryn Hahn Shine in This Agonizing Family Dramedy [Sundance]
For many couples, conceiving a child isn’t much of a challenge. For some, it’s a total freak accident. But for Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) and Richard (Paul Giamatti) it’s an uphill battle that they’ve been fighting for years with no signs of progress. In her latest feature, writer/director Tamara Jenkins (The Savages, Slums of Beverly Hills) slowly unfurls the agony of desperation for a couple in their 40s trying everything they can in the fertility handbook in order to have a child. It’s a beautifully intimate story that genuinely depicts the struggle of aspiring parents by revealing the nooks, crannies and difficulties of being desperate to have a child of your own.
Rachel (Hahn) and Richard (Giamatti) are an artsy couple living in an apartment in the East Village of New York City. She’s a successful author, and he’s a former theater director who has been away from the stage for years. They put their careers first, so their Hail Mary attempts to have a child this late in the game hold their last chance at having children. And they’ve tried everything from in vitro fertilization to joining a hotline where pregnant young women can connect with couples in an effort to give their unwanted child a family. But between Richard’s initial lack of sperm and Rachel’s aged eggs, nothing seems to work. But there’s one possibility that the couple hadn’t broached until it became their last resort: finding an egg donor.
That’s where Rachel and Richard’s niece Sadie comes into play. Kayli Carter perfectly plays the aspiring, struggling writer who has more in common with her aunt and uncle (they’re not actually related by blood) than her own parents (John Carroll Lynch and Molly Shannon in key supporting roles). She’s sarcastic, blunt, charming and is chock full of astute observations, literary references and sharp commentary. She’s also just popped in on Rachel and Richard after some emotional stress brought her to finish her college degree in absentia (she’s 25 and still hasn’t brought herself to graduate). But she could prove to be exactly what they need in order to have the child they’ve dreamed of.
Kathryn Hahn continues to be one of the best actresses working today. Her quiet, contemplative pain comes through in even the most subtle of expressions, but she also lets loose fierce emotions when Rachel just can’t take it anymore. The chemistry she has with Paul Giamatti is undeniable as the two genuinely feel like a couple who loves each other, especially through the tearful, intimately awkward fights. Giamatti also shines as a husband who wants to do everything he can in order to realize their dream of having a child, but also shows shines of wear at the ongoing process and endless failures. The authenticity of their relationship during such a tumultuous time cannot be understated.
However, the performance to watch is undoubtedly Kayli Carter. This is undoubtedly a breakthrough role for the actress, who has previously appeared on Godless, as she makes for such a naturally affable and affecting character. Her passion for wanting to help her makeshift aunt and uncle only makes the audience more invested in the hopeful success for Rachel and Richard to conceive. She also amps up the humor, although there are plenty of funny moments between Hahn and Giamatti scattered throughout the drama.
Where the film stumbles somewhat is in its length. Running just over two hours, the film drags at times. However, I find myself justifying this perceived shortcoming as an element that works thematically with the nature of the film itself. Rachel and Richard feel nothing but anguish and desperation as they wait for their latest fertility attempts to succeed, and the process for them must be exhausting. The length of the film essentially puts us on par with their struggle, putting us alongside them every step of the way. The longer time we spend with them, the more heart-wrenching it is when their attempts repeatedly fail. Without spoiling anything, this sentiment rings true right up to the very last shot of the film.
Driven by subtle but strong performances, Private Life is an emotionally arousing, quiet drama that dives deeper into the struggles of infertility than any film I’ve ever seen. Tamara Jenkins tells a movie that is simultaneously bleak and heartwarming. She takes great care with her characters and wants you to feel their pain along with their glimmer of hope. For all the movies out there about parents who had no trouble popping out a few kids, this is one for those lovers out there who find themselves still waiting in doctor’s offices for some good news.
Private Life is a Netflix original movie that will hit the streaming service sometime in 2018.
/Film Rating: 8 out of 10