Director and writer Tamara Jenkins is a chronicler of what one might call the familial claustrophobia. Characters in close quarters suffer allergies to one another, though apart they don’t fare much better. Her films concern dysfunctional families, its separate units and the whole, and the makeshift homes that they create. For the motherless, rudderless family in her debut, The Slums of Beverly Hills (1998), home is wherever they are, traipsing by the carload from one road-side motel to the next. In The Savages (2007), two disgruntled, unfulfilled siblings try find a home for their father, both unwilling to let him into theirs. Arriving after nearly a decade, her third film, Private Life, probes a married couple exhausting everything in their power to have a child and complete their family. That the film is being released by Netflix seems like both rebuff and blessing; on the one hand, affirmation of the industry’s belief that small concept films are inferior and undeserving of larger screens (though Private Life did receive limited theatrical rollout); and on the other, an afforded opportunity for viewers and fans to discover Jenkins’ work that dwells in disenchantment.
Indeed the filmmaker is expert at bursting bubbles, skewering the illusions of enviable lives in perfect places. The title The Slums of Beverly Hills says it all, announcing quickly the unglamorous peripheries of a tony zip code. Private Life, too, disenthralls from the start by opening on a woman reclined on her side in bed, a medium shot her lower body, exposed navel bathed in warm light. As the camera zooms out, viewers (and readers) will correctly surmise that the scene won’t be a sexy one, but that knowledge nonetheless does little to deter the laughter that soon arises when a hand perfunctorily jabs her with a needle full of hormones. But, more than just a gag of reversed expectation, the image also boldly mirrors and reworks the iconic opening scene of a movie suffused with lonely romanticism: Scarlett Johansson’s semi-sheer pantied backside on a hotel bed in Tokyo similarly staged in Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation. Later, Jenkins skewers fuzzy feelings again by deploying in a sequence of an Internet trawl through potential egg donors listings the very same tune that famously scored the mechanizations of logging into AOL in search of love in Nora Ephron’s You’ve Got Mail. That’s “The Puppy Song,” Harry Nilsson conflating dreams and wishes. For the central characters in Private Life, the highest hopes are for a child, but the gift of life is proving exceptionally difficult to obtain.
Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) is a playwright and author, and her husband Richard (Paul Giamatti) the director of an experimental theater company and the owner of a pickle company (artisanal, small batch, by the looks of it). They live in an East Village apartment kissed by an aesthetic so hygge and bohemian as to be maddeningly unkempt. Behind their headboard, tomes stacked unevenly like Jenga blocks mid-play, on their wall a sketch of Rachel’s genitalia. Though the couple occupies a similar space of the artistic-intellectual elite as characters from films by Noah Baumbach or Nicole Holofcener, they remain firmly separated from them by means of money. Jenkins’ characters often lack the monetary funds and its related-comforts possessed by their milieu-adjacent malcontents. However, Rachel and Richard are better off than their fictional predecessors, the Savages and the Abromowitzs, both materially and professionally. They have been recognized with awards and are esteemed in their small circles, but the issue of money still lingers beyond the frame. They live comfortably in their noisy rent-stabilized apartment in the neighborhood’s last squalid block, but likely can’t afford to relinquish it. In a city where everything’s has been gentrified, and gotten cleaner and “nicer,” the couple seems to have fallen behind, their careers and lives stalled. Such is also the state of Richard’s single testicle, suffering a temporary blockage, and Rachel’s own uncertain biological ability to reproduce. Undergoing the gamut of fertility treatment options, while keeping adoption in play, the couple has been wholly consumed now for an undisclosed amount of time. By the looks of Rachel, her hair styled by static electricity or unintentionally teased by constant tossing and turning on a pillow, it has been too long to recount, as she runs a harried march to the drumbeat of anxiety and ovulation calendars. While in The Savages Laura Linney’s character’s obsession with her father was a temporary distraction that was squared away by death, the end of this undertaking for Rachel is less cut and dry. How do you know when to stop?
The couple glimpses a potential through assisted reproduction when Richard’s non-biological niece Sadie (Kayli Carter) lands on their doorstep and agrees to be their egg-donor. From here, the film deftly charts the trio’s attempt towards pregnancy, and delicately provides a primer for the uninitiated on the subject of assisted reproduction and non-traditional conception alternatives by addressing Rachel’s ambivalence toward what she initially condemns as a sci-fi procedure, and touching as well on the murky grey issues of potential attachment from the biological mother. In the process, the couple become surrogate parents to Sadie—her actual blood relatives, including a fine turn by Molly Shannon as her mother, live comfortably in Connecticut—they shuttle back and forth by car between clinics, their apartment, and the outer suburbs. Similar to the previous features, Jenkins employs a recurring motif of road trips, however brief, meant to symbolize a psychological journeying as well. (The Beverly Hills Abromowitzs were of course nomads on the road as often as in proper housing; while the Savages triangulated between bitter cold Buffalo and New England.)
Sadie is a 25-year-old aspiring writer freshly dropped out of Bard, as gross of a descriptor as Richard and Rachel’s. She doesn’t just speak, she pontificates, with a sprint toward hyperbole. Like an addict in search of a rush, so is Sadie on a screed against inauthenticity, entitlement, or millennial behavior. The joke, of course, is that she fails to see that she perpetrates the very same behavior of her peers that she opines. Her remarks come off as foreign amusement to her “art mom” and “art dad” as she sees them, and break a sort of fourth wall by piercing the membrane of their superficial identities and self-perceptions. Sadie is the vehicle through which Jenkins can acknowledge her characters might seem birthed by a 21st century stereotype-generator, but, also defend them; they can’t help, after all, if they’ve been “co-opted by cultural mechanisms that create desirability,” having arrived in the moment of Instagram’s latest trend forecast. With a cultivated sense of awareness Jenkins relishes a tart polish on the characters without turning them into caricature. She has upped the acerbic streak in the dialogue that doesn’t just make digestible the potential gluttony of pretentiousness, but brightens and enhances the self-deprecating power in cultural cache name drops, of which there are many. (Karl Ove Knausgård, Soul Cycle, Yaddo, Russ & Daughters, Anthology Film Archives [!], among others.)
The film cuts the difference between her earlier films, averaging out to something by turns as funny as the first and as grim as the second, invigorated largely by Hahn, who proves the ideal vessel for Jenkins’ cinema of squirrelly discontent and “emotional incontinence,” to borrow a phrase from her character. On the frangible diazepam-edge of a breakdown, like Laura Linney’s character before her, Hahn uses her comedic sensibility to endow a firmness to her frustration in the role, absent in Linney’s that prevents her from drowning in the pathetic. The yippy sonority of her voice grounds her in reality, while the tight smile drawn up by her lips and eyes (an expert smize), accentuates desperation or italicizes bits of joy. She is further complemented by Giamatti, here laconically displeased. When they clash, he warily yields to absorb her fury only to volley it back as a puff of noxious smoke, not a ball of fire. He hisses dissatisfaction through his teeth, not in an amphetaminized and wild-eyed bluster, in this restrained performance where but a simple gesture, like the squeeze of the arm, announces quietly their deep affection. Like the Savage siblings before them, Rachel and Richard’s love may run deeper than any inveterate bitterness or dormant issues, which as it happens, are never really resolved (surprise). While many arguments may hearken back to the paradigmatic debate concerning career versus motherhood, when this blame game bubbles to the surface, it never scorches a culprit.
Truer to life, where arguments don’t always land with a conclusive thud, Private Life masterfully seizes on the ebb and flow of decisions and disappointments, cresting in fantastic uncertainty. Jenkins excavates without puncture, but small cuts can cause the most acute pain.