Netflix's life drama hinges on Kathryn Hahn's awards-worthy performance.
It's difficult to imagine a film about life, focused on the dramatic moments, to not contain a little humor here and there. To make it work, however, takes very careful attention to the balance between the two. With Private Life, Netflix's drama following a married couple's attempts to conceive a child by any means possible, director and writer Tamara Jenkins has sewn together the threads of life with such care and compassion and realness. The movie never shies away from how troubling or annoying or coy the mundane moments can be, highlighting how even the smallest look or innocent intention can impact the entirety of a chapter of life.
Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti are Rachel and Richard, a seemingly happy couple along for the ride of their lives as they attempt to get pregnant. Very quickly, we learn their journey to parenthood has included a rough few years of unsuccessful, expensive medical procedures and attempts, plus a heartbreaking loss of trust through a failed adoption. Growing older and seeing the end approach nearer and nearer, just when their patience is running thin, their step-niece, Sadie (Kayli Carter), enters the picture. After mulling it over and weighing the pros and cons, Rachel and Richard toss the idea to Sadie about her providing fertile eggs. Sadie quickly accepts the offer, happy to know she's found a purpose at this point in her life. The hurdles from here are in Sadie's parents (John Carrol Lynch and Molly Shannon) learning to accept Sadie's decision and measuring the success of the journey as it carries on, from tedious step to tedious step.
Jenkins has a power in her writing that find the nuances in everyday life and elevates it, shining a spotlight at the right moment and staying just long enough for that spotlight to turn to a mirror for the audience. Here, she's grappled in a very specific circumstance that parlays into some of life's greatest obstacles. That search for a purpose that Sadie possesses is something we've all felt or are feeling or will feel at some point. That desire that lives in Rachel and Richard for something more transcends just parenthood.
To sell the story, Jenkins gives a lot of power to her cast. Hahn, especially, is captivating. She's proven before that she contains a very special knack for comedic timing. With Private Life, she used that to her advantage, opting to not sell jokes, but instead evoke an earnest reality in her words and expressions and pensive stares. As her heart breaks, her dive into sadness is ripe with quiet and introverted moments where she second guesses her own decisions. It's heavy stuff and Hahn handles it with care. It feels very natural, which is even more effective. Giammati has the more outward moments, but his character serves as a supporting piece. Where women's roles are typically meant to fill a very specific wife trope in many films, Giammati is filling a husband trope with tender panache. His hysteria and compassion are mixed to equal delight, but never enough to overshadow his leading lady. And, as Sadie, Carter shines, perhaps almost stealing the movie. She's precocious to a degree, but tackles Sadie's intelligence and sense of wonder with a breath of fresh air. Where Sadie could come across as pretentious or rebellious, Carter plays her with hope and love.
Private Life may get lost in the shuffle of other Netflix films that made the festival circuit or are getting flashier releases later this year, like The Year of Steady Habits, 22 July, or Roma, but it deserves a spot in the awards conversation. The writing is very natural, but punchy enough to keep you entertained. The films feels a little long at times, but wraps up nicely to make the slower moments feel worth it. A sweet treat is Shannon's against-type mom, almost playing in her own film of self-discovery.
Jenkins' style of filmmaking is very specific and this film adds a new elevation for artistry in an already impressive career. This film finds her getting the most out of her cast and perhaps delivering her most honest script, so far. Enjoy this with a nice glass of wine, but don't forget the tissues.