Private Life Review: A Realistic Trip Through Infertility’s Indignities

Strong performances do their best to overcome a weak script and a long runtime in Netflix's Private Life.

Kathryn Hahn shines in this quirky, realistic trip through the indignities of infertility as a prism for examining the choices women have to make across their lives. Inspired by Oscar-nominated writer/director Tamara Jenkins’s (The Savages) own struggle to have a child, it gets that exhausting, humiliating experience unflinchingly right. But an overly long runtime and a script that seems satisfied with leaving much of the emotional dynamics unexamined hamper the film overall, leaving it to succeed almost entirely on the likeable and winning performances and the fact of a surprisingly frank take on the subject.

Rachel (Hahn) and Richard (Paul Giammati, playing it exactly as you expect him to) are 40-something artists living in New York City and trying to have a kid. Adoption, IUI’s, IVF, they have – and in some cases, are still – trying it all. Emotionally and financially drained, they’re consumed by this pursuit and at a loss for how to continue. When donor eggs are suggested, Rachel wishes she had a close female friend or relative they could call upon. Enter Sadie (Kayli Carter, Godless), Richard’s niece by way of his suburban step-brother, Charlie (John Carroll Lynch) and his wife, Cynthia (Molly Shannon).

An aspiring writer, Sadie’s struggled to find her place and at 25 is leaving Bard to finish up online. She calls unexpectedly, wanting to stay with her aunt and uncle, or as she calls them her “Art Parents,” until she gets back on her feet. Richard and Rachel think maybe their problem is solved, and Sadie is perhaps too eager to let their fertility quest give her life meaning, as all three embark upon a strange, emotionally fraught chapter in their journey, which could have lifelong implications for all involved.

Fertility is a slog, and unfortunately Private Life couldn’t quite figure out how to show that without becoming one, too. You’ll feel every minute of the two-hour runtime, although the stellar leads – especially Kathryn Hahn – do their best to make you forget. The pacing doesn’t help – it’s hard to know where you are in time or in the story, which is certainly an accurate reflection of the fertility journey, but doesn’t exactly translate well to the viewing experience. Tightening the story up a bit would have really made the piece sing.

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Private Life succeeds mostly as a character study of Rachel and Sadie, and a vehicle for Kayli Carter’s magnetic introduction and Kathryn Hahn’s much-deserved, long-overdue tour de force. For once it’s the careers of women that are of primary concern, and Private Life is most insightful when it grapples with who these women are as artists and people, and the choices they have had to make to get there.

Charismatic newcomer Kayli Carter is a joy to watch on screen, giving a performance so effortless that you’ll swear she must be opinionated, aimless artist-to-be Sadie in real life. Desmin Borges turns in a slightly less damaged, but otherwise-similar turn as Sam as he does on You’re the Worst. He quickly makes a few brief appearances into a winning little subplot, the success of which rests almost entirely with him.

Richard, however, is largely allowed to tut-tut his way through the movie, un-reckoned with for his lack of emotional support, somehow not to blame for infertility despite his one testicle and complete lack of sperm, and only occasionally called out for blaming it all on Rachel and checking out of the process entirely. Rarely are they on the same page, Richard seems to go out of his way to not comfort Rachel but make every road block about his feelings or the lack of sex instead. But this aspect of their lives, though commented on by their friends and family and brought up in a fight or two, is left feeling unexplored. Private Life doesn’t seem to have anything new to say about the way fertility so quickly sews resentment into a relationship, but worse still, it doesn’t even really try.

There’s an odd vibe that hangs over Richard and Sadie’s relationship that is so unexplored as to almost seem unintentional. There are more than a few boundary-crossing moments of foreshadowing that amount to nothing, whether his injecting hormones into her, or her penchant for not wearing pants around him and referring to the baby as being his, hers, and Rachel’s collectively. Considering that Rachel gets upset about any other young woman they even theoretically consider including in the process, it’s strange that it’s never acknowledged, other than a therapist pointedly supplying that if Richard were Sadie’s uncle by blood, it would be incest.

Unfortunately, Rachel and Molly Shannon’s Cynthia share almost no screen time, and never get a proper go at each other, never mind anything approaching a resolution. For the two most powerful forces in Sadie’s life to almost never interact is a bit odd, especially given that so much of Cynthia’s dialogue is about Rachel. More could certainly been made of Cynthia’s having two children, seemingly sacrificing her career, and currently going through menopause while she excoriates successful writer Rachel for being so bold as to unapologetically want what her sister-in-law already has.

Private Life is an unflinching – if not altogether insightful – examination of three lives during a very peculiar moment in time. Everyone is doing great work here, especially Kathryn Hahn, who bears much of the emotional weight and word count, but unfortunately while the script has plenty of worthwhile material, it never seems all that interested in mining it for understanding.

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2.5 out of 5