I have always thought that adulthood would be about meeting someone, getting married, and eventually having some kids. It is the story that you hear time and time again throughout your life from countless other adults. But, they fail to mention the downsides that come with this dream scenario. What if it doesn’t work out? What if it doesn’t pay off? What if all that was done in vain? These are all the questions answered in Tamara Jenkins’ Private Life, a film containing a series of unfortunate events, of heartbreaking stories, of floating hope.
My first encounter with Jenkins was around 2013 or so. I used to have a habit of watching every film nominated for Best Actress at the Oscars. At that time, I wanted to go through all the films in the 2000s. When I got to the 2007 Best Actress lineup, I was stuck on Laura Linney in The Savages, and really the entire film itself. Dysfunctional family is a recurring theme in Jenkins’ work. She constructs a traditional family (husband and wife in Private Life, brother and sister in The Savages) then dissects each member of that family into a story with love and humor in the most unravelling manner.
Private Life starts with what seem to be the muffled sounds of what a husband and wife do privately. Later we find out what is actually happening: Richard (Paul Giamatti) is injecting hormones into his wife, Rachel (Kathryn Hahn). From this scene alone, we get the gist of what their lives are like at the moment: childless, desperate, and unhappy. It is revealed that they have been attempting to start a family of their own. Artificial insemination, adoption, IVF—all attempts that didn’t work out in the end. Not only have they gone broke through this process, but they have also started to dissolve into this kind of routine that has almost cost them their marriage. All until Rachel’s niece, Sadie (Kayli Carter) comes into the picture. At dinner, she reveals how pretentious her college writing program and how much she dislikes it. She then asks the couple if she can live with them. She considers Rachel and Richard her cool relatives since their cultural backgrounds go hand in hand with Sadie’s interests. While all of this is happening, Richard and Rachel are desperate for an egg donor. This desperation leads them to ask Sadie if she wants to donate her egg. To their surprise, Sadie agrees. She wants the stars to align for Richard and Rachel, she wants them to live happily. This one egg could bring them happiness, and somehow, a purpose to Sadie herself.
Richard and Rachel are two miserable and bitter people, not because they do bad things, but because bad things have happened to them. All of the joy has been sucked out of their bodies and what’s left is annoyance and impatience. Private Life never feels sardonic, it’s not its main purpose and intention. But it does display immense heartbreak, the heartbreak of wanting descendants of your own that you’re willing to go the extra mile for. For them, there is no way out. They have gone so far, there is no way to quit or sign off now because their sole purpose has become one thing: to have kids.
Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn work together like magic. The way Kathryn Hahn unravels into fatigue and despair is nothing short of excellence. Paired with Paul Giamatti who does groundedness like no one else does, even the tiniest bits of their conversation is turned into a resentful debate. Yet, they thrive on demonstrating a portrayal of an honest marriage—stripped down, with all of its desires, efforts, and responsibilities. None of this wouldn’t have happened without Tamara Jenkins and her acute proficiency in noticing family issues that are often overlooked or deemed uncomfortable. What’s amazing about this film is its ability to get a few chuckles out of the audience while still being empathetic about what makes it funny in the first place.
This is Jenkins’ first feature film in 11 years. It’s as if she has appeared again from thin air, bringing with her quality, emotional cinema in the subtlest, funniest way possible. Jenkins said that making this film was a long process and writing it was like “a separate category of pain”. To return to filmmaking with such a nuanced topic like infertility in middle-aged couples could go wrong, but in the hand of Jenkins, everything was, in a way, wonderfully sad. It is like watching a documentary, where you can really feel all of these emotions. This is one of the most profoundly humane films there is, where it is all laid out for the audience. All of the dimensions a human being can exhibit exist in this film, no matter how ugly or bleak or promising or lovely they can be.