Trying to conceive is an adult rite of passage. It comes with all manner of issues, problems, concerns, downs, and ups. Normally films focus on the bawdier elements of conception with young couples but one area not often explored is those who leave it rather late. As much as the modern world tells us we can have it all, from a purely biological point of view, past a certain point, people are going to hit fertility problems. This is a subject that is rife with material. Private Life, starring Paul Giamatti, Kathryn Hahn, and Kayli Carter, and Molly Shannon (Fun Mom Dinner) covers a realistic but slightly comedic take on the confusing cycle of IVFs and other birthing options.
Written and directed by Tamara Jenkins, Private Life is about a middle-aged couple Richard (Giamatti) and Rachel (Hahn) who have been trying to conceive for years by the fertility treatment route, without success. The film opens with the couple at a fertility clinic preparing for IVF treatment and dealing with the matter of fact absurdity of it all. Rachel, legs in the air, is perplexed when the doctor casually asks if she likes Prog Rock. Richard finds the over-exaggerated grunting in his ‘adult stimulation material’ tiresome, especially when he accidentally locks the volume on high. As the movie progresses and their various treatments fail we see a couple frayed at the edges and suffering from the shame and frustration.
After setting this all too real scene for many couples, the movie introduces the ‘joker’ element. Donor eggs. Rachel’s initial revulsion of the idea wanes and they shop around for likely donors. And it just so happens that they are very close with their young niece, Sadie. Sadie (Carter) is dropping out of college and butting heads with her judgemental mother. Carter’s vivaciousness injects some youthful energy into both the screen and Richard and Rachel’s lives. They all clearly adore each other and the dialogue sparkles with comfortable wit and love when they are all together. So will she agree, and will it work this time?
This is a low key movie with several minimalistic scenes, relying strongly on the performances and dialogue. The score is barely there apart from some gentle jazzy undercurrents or piano melancholy. Which succeeds in creating a sense of moment by moment realism. Richard and Rachel nervously trying to discuss donor eggs with Sadie at the breakfast is masterfully done (“I’ll have them scrambled, please” she says, misunderstanding). As is a very very awkward Thanksgiving dinner at Sadie’s parents house. This isn’t a laugh out loud movie, but is all the better for it.
Private Life is a movie of snapshots, as indeed is life. The presence of a youthful woman enlivens the lives of a long standing couple. Yet once she leaves there is a shot of Richard slowly deflating her air bed. The metaphor for his own hopes and life is there in the silence. Hahn’s performance encapsulates the guilt, frustration, and internalised anger at not being able to conceive naturally. She is at times frazzled, mutely excited, and proud. Time is literally running out, and it isn’t fair.
Private Life is a wonderfully subdued comedy-drama that revels in both the moderate highs and suppressed lows. And with a closing credit scrawl that shows the drained but hopeful duo nervously awaiting their future, the lack of resolution is all the more on point.
Words by Michael Record