“My god, it’s like The Handmaid’s Tale!” says Rachel (Kathryn Hahn), looking on in horror as her husband Richard (Paul Giamatti) swipes left and right on a site for prospective egg donors. Rachel and Richard are having an incredibly tough few years – failing IVF multiple times, getting stood up by someone offering adoption, losing all their money and generally putting their relationship through the worst kind of emotional wringer.
In short, it’s a pretty bad time for their 24-year-old step-niece Sadie (newcomer Kayli Carter) to crash in their New York apartment with her own problems – and her own role to play in Rachel and Richard’s stalled life-plans.
Private Life sounds like plenty of other movies you’ve seen before – with a dozen other comedies labouring over middle-aged angst, infertility and the pains of growing old, but everything about Tamara Jenkins’ sensitive, smart indie gem feels unique.
This is the same Jenkins that made the cult Slums Of Beverly Hills back in the ’90s and then didn’t return for a decade until she made 2007’s Oscar-winning The Savages. It’s taken more than another 10 years for us to see her next film, but it’s been well worth the wait – a perfect example of how Netflix Originals are slowly starting to save indie cinema.
Private Life tells an inexplicably painful story, and the beige, florescent bulb reality of all the awkward conversations held in doctor’s offices (and all the heartbroken conversations held on the way home afterwards) will be particularly raw for anyone who’s ever been through anything like Rachel and Richard. Yet Jenkins’ wonderfully smart and funny screenplay cuts through every moment of pain and pathos with a line, a look or a flash of humour that lifts the whole film into something that feels like a welcome giggle at a funeral – with more heart-warming emotional realism than most films even try for.
Much of the credit belongs to the three main cast members. Paul Giamatti has pretty much made a career out of playing jaded intellectuals, but he brings a sarcastic warmth to Richard that we haven’t seen since 2010’s Barney’s Version. Hahn, who usually gets the background parts in other people’s comedies as the screechy step-mom, ex-wife or best friend, is a revelation in the lead role – taking one of the most emotionally challenging roles of most people’s careers and making it look effortlessly natural.
Another welcome surprise is Kayli Carter. Getting her first leading role after a few small parts in TV shows like Godless and Z: The Beginning Of Everything, this is the kind of turn that feels like the one to finally get her noticed.
There’s so much more to admire in Private Life too; John Carroll Lynch as Richard’s put-upon brother-in-law; Molly Shannon as Rachel’s slightly-jealous sister; all the night-time, over-the-covers couples chats; the New York vibe that brings the script into focus with the best of Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig. But the real joy of the film is watching Jenkins tell a deeply personal story with so much genuine heart and humanity. Private Life soaks its story of love and marriage and family in so much pain you can almost taste it – but it’s all told with such a great sense of humour that ends up far more sweet then sour.
Private Life is streaming now on Netflix.