Private Life (Jenkins, 2018)

Childrearing is tough. We’ve seen plenty of films about it. Stories about conception, though, are less common—especially ones about couples struggling like no tomorrow for a family that may never materialize. Tamara Jenkins takes it upon herself to deliver an especially good one, filled with a quiet determination that regularly devolves into a march of bad news. Everywhere there is complication after complication, setback after setback. The options are few, yet the desire for offspring is insatiable. There is nothing one can do but truck on, keeping spirits high as the various drugs and hormones kick in and skim for miracles. It’s a draining process, but Jenkins is unafraid to fish out some levity when it’s needed. Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti are no strangers to comedy, so they have the skills needed to sell the minute shifts in tone without making them seem incongruous. Jenkins is also liberal with her wit, which peppers the screenplay and begets many a fulsome laugh. They are primed to come at unexpected moments, ready to lift your spirits as the lead characters receive more bouts of disappointing news. The process steadies itself as the film goes on, eventually finding a comfortable rhythm that can expel excessive gloom. It reaches a point where you’re instinctively assured that Jenkins knows what she’s doing, and the pleasures begin reaching you with more ease.

While Hahn and Giamatti are excellent, I found so much of this film’s magic resting with Kayli Carter, who plays a prospective egg donor (and step-niece) to Hahn’s character. She is introduced as something of a pugnacious type, but really it’s only towards her parents that she behaves truculently. To Hahn and Giamatti, she is affectionate, and this affection makes her decision to be an egg donor all the more resolute. In another film, you can imagine the kind of conflict that could be derived from Hahn asking her step-niece to be her donor. Some of it remains in Molly Shannon, who plays Carter’s mother; the rest does not exist, because Carter agrees almost immediately. The moment takes you aback at first, because her answer is so firm. The film seems to be cheating you of a juicy skirmish between opposing sides. Yet it’s because Carter’s affirmation is so quick, and so earnest, that the film sells itself so well. Sometimes, when you feel you’re not making a difference, the next best thing is to show how much love you’re capable of. In that weird old way, love is just as effective as, say, finding the answer to world peace. The gesture is infinitely smaller, yet it’s no less powerful. And that’s where the film got to me: it understands that we have a power in this world that even we don’t realize at first.

Smallness and largeness, happiness and sadness, despondency and celebration. Private Life cycles through opposing emotions and forces, waiting for a break in the circle so that new life can dawn. It also understands that such a dawning may never come, and that we are never alone in such tragedies. Waiting rooms are always full of those people with the same issues, seeking the same resolutions. There is still a silver lining for everyone. There are still selfless acts of devotion, and undying patience and support when the world seems antagonistic. Not all of us are able to conceive, but we are all capable of perceiving that we can move on, hand in hand.