Private Life: Gestation Period, by Josh Long
Tamara Jenkins makes the best kind of dramas. They focus on real people in difficult real life situations, but peppered with humor at the absurdity of real life. All of her characters are too well-rounded for us to ever declare one as “good” or “bad.” They make stupid decisions, but we understand why they made those decisions, and knowing why makes it hard to judge them. Jenkins’ newest film, Private Life, turns an unflinching, uncritical eye on infertility – the result is alternately heartbreaking and heartwarming, as it should be.
Rachel and Richard (Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti) are pushing 50 and struggling to get pregnant. The film starts off with their first round of IVF (in vitro fertilization). If IVF wasn’t complicated enough, issues with Richard’s sperm mean the doctors have to go through a series of last minute processes to harvest enough sperm to fertilize the eggs. And it has to be done right away, and it costs ten thousand dollars. We learn that this is far past their first step in the progress. They’ve done hormones, IUI (intrauterine insemination), pursued adoption, all with no luck. The physical, financial, and emotional strain of the process has taken a serious and unsurprising toll on their marriage. They are at the fraught stage of considering egg donors when Richard’s step-niece Sadie comes back into their lives. She’s dropped out of college and wants to move to New York to become a writer. She’s brash and unpredictable, which has put her at odds with her parents, and when her “cool” uncle and aunt offer to give her a place to stay, she takes it. Richard and Rachel are now faced with the question – could Sadie be their egg donor?
I’m not familiar with many other films that deal this explicitly and honestly with the issue of infertility. As it’s a surprisingly common experience, it’s great to see a film that addresses it so well. If you’ve ever known couples dealing with infertility but couldn’t identify with the difficulty, this is the movie to watch. There’s such a delicate panoply of emotions wrapped up in the process, and the film expertly maneuvers through them. Rachel and Richard wonder how they’re going to get the money for all these procedures. They get attached to potential birth mothers for adoptions that never happen. They argue over whose fault it is that they didn’t have children earlier in life. And they wonder if they even want children at all at this point.
As heavy as all of that is, Jenkins is too light-footed to turn this movie dour. She gives us the license to laugh at the awkwardness and absurdity, which helps us realize that maybe that’s a healthier way to look at everything. Because at the end of all things, it is kind of ridiculous. Rachel’s doctor sings along with prog rock as he inseminates her. Richard and Rachel find the waitress at their local café in a list of egg donors, and visit the café to “evaluate” her. And of course, as Sadie enters the picture, things get even stranger. If she agrees to be a donor, how will her straight-laced parents (Molly Shannon and John Carroll Lynch) react? Will the three constantly have to explain how their situation isn’t some weird test tube incest? And how might that strain or change the relationship between the three of them, not to mention the rest of the family?
At the center, and the highlight of the film, is the Rachel and Richard marriage. They bicker – a lot – but this doesn’t mean they’re bad for each other. In fact, a social worker doing an “adoption visit” to their apartment opines that their willingness to pursue adoption after so much heartbreak is a testament to their strength as a couple. We cringe at first, because we know they’re hiding from the social worker the fact that they’re currently in the process of an IVF cycle (something you’re really not supposed to do). But by the end of the film, we realize the sentiment is true. It’s painful but they don’t give up, on their hopes or on each other. It makes us love these characters so much that we’re with them all the way. Beautiful, complex performances by both Hahn and Giamatti go hand in hand with Jenkins’ poignant script to create sad, flawed, but hopeful people.
Infertility is distressing, and the film knows it. But it focuses on the good that can come out of distressing situations, and the way that people can connect and encourage each other while they’re in the trenches. The balanced and grounded characters that populate Private Life draw us into their lives and their struggles, thanks to the keen eye of a talented filmmaker like Tamara Jenkins. I sincerely hope we don’t have to wait another ten year gap for her next film.