PARK CITY, Utah — Private Life is one of those special Sundance movies. The kind that has that sort of dry wit that sands at your heart until it aches. In it, the spectacular talents of Kathryn Hahn, Paul Giamatti, Molly Shannon and writer-director Tamara Jenkins combine for an outrageous, outstanding opening night premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.
More, because the film already has Netflix distribution, you’ll be able to cringe, laugh and cry at the bitter beauty of it all from the comfort of your couch faster than some other Sundance movies will even broker deals.
The film chronicles one New York couple’s mid-life struggle to have a child through IVF. It’s a prickly portrait of a relationship that manages to be both cynical and sincere, frank and funny. It’s a tough subject, but it’s still a laugh riot.
Of course, the hunch the film would turn out that way is the reason it premiered to a packed Park City screening. Jenkins’ last effort, The Savages, proved her uncanny ability to lend a dignified, pragmatic levity to life’s traumatic struggles, in that case a brother and sister caring for their ailing father. Dementia and fertility issues are hardly the sexiest of topic but Jenkins treats them with frankness and wonder, both a reflection and a reminder of the irreverence needed to survive the most trying of times.
It is, sure, almost inexcusably long, with several ugly turns and off-putting side journeys along the way to an ending that can seem at an unreachable horizon. But even that flaw is effective: a relentless onslaught of baby fretting that telegraphs the exhaustion our protagonists feel. In many ways, it was the perfect movie for this year’s opening night slot.
This year’s Sundance Film Festival is taking place amid an uncertain, angry, and, at that, invigorating time for the industry, and against the backdrop of a volatile, divided cultural landscape—the very landscape the industry is supposed to reflect, challenge, and advance.
Accordingly, this year’s slate of films charges into the choppy waters of those conversations, with films that resonate against hot-button conversations about race, gender, sexual harassment, and the #MeToo movement. Several documentaries about the Trump administration and government corruption will play. The likes of Ruth Bader Ginsberg, Gloria Allred, and Jane Fonda will all be here to promote projects centered on their careers.
All that necessary, conversation-sparking content is still to come, and it will be important. But it’s remarkable—and, honestly, refreshing—that this year’s festival kicked off with a project that is, in contrast to all the buzzy titles and topical content, a classically Sundance film: a stirring, quiet family drama, one that is playful in tone and confrontational in subject matter from an underappreciated creator, and one that needs this kind of platform to make some noise.
It’s not that Private Life is without its cultural hook.
Hahn and Giamatti are Rachel and Richard, a couple whose twenties are behind them and, in that same rearview, the days when conceiving a child might have been a less complicated and emotionally wrought experience. Shrugs and exasperated sighs become the norm, interactions become clinical, communication exists increasingly in nags. The cracks in their marriage become fault lines, with each failed fertility treatment, adoption exploration, and strained attempt at having a child threatening to be the one that sends the Richter scale to the magnitude that finally levels the relationship.
Neither are bad people. Their marriage isn’t a bad marriage. The pursuit of happiness simply takes it toll, but is refunded again and again at the smallest glimpse of hope. In this unusual case, it comes in the form of Rachel and Richard’s step-niece, Sadie (Kayli Carter), who agrees—fully cognizant of the drama it will stir up with her own mother (Shannon) and father (John Carroll Lynch)—to be their egg donor.
The family-sparring, climaxing at a Thanksgiving dinner blow-up for the ages, works because everyone is technically right in their arguments. Family dynamics don’t come more complicated than this. And yet, there’s something endearing about the family unit Rachel, Richard, and Sadie form during the IVF treatments, a united goal to distract them from the dejection that reality has all-too-frequently brought them—not to mention the paranoia that it’s coming for them again.
A performance as believably messy as Hahn’s Rachel requires meticulous craft. Hahn is a goddess of wanton comedy and boundless pathos whose id unfurls off the screen, practically itching at the audience when she’s paired with a storyteller who recognizes her singular talents. Jill Soloway, who has worked with her on Afternoon Delight, Transparent, and I Love Dick has done it. And Jenkins has done it again.
The depth of performance she helps bring out from Shannon, too, playing a character that too easily could’ve been written off as a shrew, is one of the film’s greatest strengths.
Jenkins understands the human condition, and that our brightest moments and darkest disappointments are more shaded than any superlative or binary. She’s also self-aware enough to understand the bougie entitlement of her protagonists. She mocks the New York elite here, but is clever enough to be compassionate to their (albeit heightened) troubles. Describing these very talents is in fact fostering our fear that we’re making a movie this enjoyable out to be a laborious viewing experience, given its subject matter. But it’s not!
When you watch the film, you can feel that it was a personal crusade—down, sadly, to the preciousness of its overlong final act. But that’s because the journey Jenkins took to bring the film back to the festival, speaking of cultural hooks, is itself a relevant indictment of the uphill battle women in the industry face when it comes to opportunity, agency, and power—even if they come armed with awards clout and a flawless cinematic track record.
Private Life marks Jenkins’ first feature in 11 years, following 2007’s The Savages, which premiered at Sundance with enough uproarious momentum to carry Jenkins to a Best Original Screenplay Oscar nomination as well as a Best Actress nod for Linney.
The process of getting The Savages made involved years of development-hell torture. But surely after its success, things changed for its celebrated creator on her next project, right?
As she recounted to Indiewire, she remembered thinking at the time, “I was nominated for an Oscar. Now people are going to send me the best books, some amazing great property, to adapt. That never happened. I thought that was the next thing.”
Was it an entitled attitude? Perhaps. But no more so than the neophyte male indie directors who break out from Sundance in similar ways and are then immediately trusted with nine-figure blockbuster budgets, with enough cases of these men to liquidate a baseball cap store of its entire inventory.
But Jenkins began writing about her life. The unique trials of mid-life marriage, the struggle to conceive at that same age. Many of those threads found their way into Private Life, even if they were nearly worn bare by the time they got there.
Amazon eventually agreed to make the movie, gifting Jenkins a paltry budget once Hahn and Giamatti signed on, reigniting frustrations that had been bubbling since The Savages experience.
She’s candid about this to Indiewire—it’s a wonderful, frank interview that you should all read—venting, “The same thing happened on frigging Savages. I get these two actors who are going to be amazing together, and they say, ‘You can make that, but the budget is going to be this low.’ Yes, so low you can’t do justice to what you wrote! You’d have to shoot in Montreal. It’s depressing. I felt like I was talking to people who were having a conversation with somebody on the top [one-time studio head Roy Price] who I never met and never talked to. It felt like a game of telephone as I tried to interpret what the people upstairs were thinking, who I was not talking to directly.”
By the way, during all this, which Indiewire recounts, Amazon gave a male filmmaker a greenlight, a bigger budget, and Jenkins’ production spot. She would have to pass on filming in New York; it filmed in her neighborhood. That film, Marc Webb’s The Only Living Boy in New York, grossed $624,000 in North America. Fast-forward past these egregious affronts, and Private Life has been rescued by Netflix, which gave Jenkins the money she needed to make it well.
Now we get to see it, a film that unswaddles with brutal honesty the plight of baby-making for those who struggle with it, but also underlines the humanity of those desperate enough to bring life into their own imperfect world, and the partnership to weather it. Private lives, it turns out, are hopelessly universal.