Sundance 2018: Private Life, by David Bax
Tamara Jenkins’ Private Life is a quiet epic of domestic and familial tribulations. It’s also the best film of her career so far. In essence, it’s a comedy of manners, focusing heavily on an extended family’s attempts to fit awful developments into their established normalcy. It’s both crushingly relatable and unlike anything else.
Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti star as Rachel and Richard, married New York artists who are trying to have their first child in their 40s. It’s not going well and the emotional strain is fraying their relationship. Running low on options, they eventually turn to the possibility of a donor egg and appeal to Sadie (Kayli Carter, absolutely wonderful), the daughter of Richard’s step-brother, Charlie (John Carroll Lynch) and his wife, Cynthia (Molly Shannon), to supply the goods.
Rachel and Richard are no doubt the leads but Private Life often plays like an ensemble piece, so interested is it in each of its characters. This attention to individuals leads to the movie’s great sense of humor, all of the jokes coming naturally out of the characters without ever mocking them. Even a relatively minor role like Denis O’Hare’s slightly 0ver-familiar fertility doctor is viewed with empathy. The details reveal much; Jenkins illustrates how much closer Sadie is to Rachel and Richard than to her own parents by having her, just like the cultured Manhattanites, pepper her speech with literary, artistic and cinematic references (Rosemary’s Baby and The Handmaid’s Tale have obvious relevance but Jenkins finds room for Drugstore Cowboy and others as well).
As with her previous film, The Savages, Jenkins’ aesthetic approach is a deceptively subtle one, relying mostly on classical framing but with occasional subjective brushstrokes. These shots (often close-ups) accompany disorienting moments like Sadie standing up through Richard’s open sunroof on a suburban road in Autumn or Rachel waking up from anesthesia after surgery. Collectively, these moments contribute to a deeper identification with the characters.
There’s so much beauty and comedy in Private Life that I’ve almost neglected to mention that it is a film about deeply unhappy people. With the occasional exception, though (Rachel screaming into the bathtub she’s scrubbing; Richard absolutely unloading on a doctor and, inadvertently, an entire waiting room of patients), the discontent leaks out in minor ways that add up. Richard condescends to Rachel, answering questions that were asked to her or questioning whether she remembered to take her medication. Rachel, meanwhile, mentions to anyone and everyone that Richard has only one testicle, as if to imply blame for their situation. In scene after scene, Jenkins and her stellar cast indicate that even the most enlightened people–folks who are both in touch with and eloquent about their own emotions–can’t get through the hard times on intellect alone. For that, they need what we all need. Patience and each other.