If there’s one thing my 29-ish years on this planet have taught me, it’s that my Life Sciences professor was totally right: human existence basically revolves around babies.
Reproduction is the simple yet mysterious force which guides so many of our choices, wreaks havoc on plans, starts wars, ends wars, and gives us reason to keep going when life looks bleak. Because whether we are obsessed with our own kids (or obsessed with not having kids, as the case may be) eventually we all realize “Oh shoot, I’m gonna die,” and we start investing in the next crop of humans to take over earth life and keep the species going.
In Writer/Director Tamara Jenkins’ (Juliet Naked, Slums of Beverly Hills) first feature film since The Savages in 2007, Private Life gets exactly on the pulse of this quintessential human topic. Rachel and Richard – portrayed by the evenly matched, impeccable Kathryn Hahn (Afternoon Delight, Bad Moms) and Paul Giamatti (Saving Mr. Banks, 12 Years a Slave) are in their forties and trying to have a kid.
Because the clock is ticking, they’re exploring everything: IUI, IVF, adoption applications, and surrogates. Needle after needle in Rachel’s hip, endless waiting rooms filled with silent people who are also desperately hoping to become parents. It’s gotten to the point that their sister-in-law Cynthia (a role truly made for Molly Shannon, Other People, Miles) is disgusted with them for being “fertility junkies.” But family tensions escalate even further when Cynthia’s daughter, Rachel and Richard’s step-niece, Sadie (delightful newcomer Kayli Carter, Rings) drops out of college, moves in with them, and decides she wants to become their egg-donor. The high stakes of everything only get higher from there.
Private Life is engrossing from start to finish, and I got the scrumptious treat of being able to enjoy a press conference with the leading ladies (Jenkins, Hahn, Shannon, and Carter) after my New York Film Festival screening. It was inspiring to hear how, even though Hahn and Shannon are seasoned improvisers, the cast found a ton of freedom in sticking meticulously to Jenkins’ brilliant script. The women clearly adored working together, and couldn’t stop praising one another as both artists and humans.
One of the two main things that resonated with me personally was the setting: my current hometown of New York City. I know what you’re thinking: OK, basically every movie is set in NYC. Yeah, but you can tell Tamara Jenkins has lived here, loves it here. From the Halloween parade and tree colors changing to mark the seasons, to the taco carts and restaurants, it feels just like New York – and if you know Manhattan, you can tell where the couple lives almost down to the block. “The fabric of the neighborhood was important to me,” Jenkins insisted, and it’s easy to tell.
The other element that moved me way more deeply than I expected was the multi-faceted relationship between Richard and Rachel. At the beginning of the story, I cynically assumed their marriage was probably doomed, because it was clear they were spending all their time and money in this quest for a child, often at the expense of each other’s fears and feelings. But this script is way deeper than that. Over the course of the movie, I came to understand why they loved each other and how they helped each other. I saw a foundation more solid than simply “we are hoping to make another person together.” As a married, childfree woman approaching thirty, this made for a pretty intense movie-watching experience at times, but in the best way.
Be warned: if this topic feels close to home, there are some hard-hitting moments that are partially inspired by Jenkins’ own fertility journey with her husband. As you might guess from the title, each character has a lot of brokenness and sorrow hidden in their private life. Some moments are heartbreaking, like when Rachel asks, “Why are we doing this? Are we insane?” Some are side-splittingly hilarious, like when a surrogacy website prompts the reaction: “Oh my God, it’s like The Handmaid’s Tale” or when Rachel refuses booze since she is “cycling” and one of her friends exclaims, “Oh my God, SOUL CYCLE?” There are plenty of laughs and tears.
In the end, Private Life is an existential rollercoaster, and only barely about a baby. (It’s more like Waiting for Godot, according to Giamatti!). The first shot is of just Rachel and Richard, sticking a needle into her hip. But the story is much bigger than them, and the family eventually blooms bigger, brighter, and more beautifully – just maybe not in quite the way they expected.