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Private Life is a terrific, heartbreaking look at a marriage through the lens of infertility

Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti play a couple struggling with infertility in Tamara Jenkins’s funny, moving drama.

Kathryn Hahn, Kayli Carter, and Paul Giamatti in Private Life
Kathryn Hahn, Kayli Carter, and Paul Giamatti in Private Life.
Jojo Whilden/Sundance Institute
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Infertility is painful and maddening for the couples forced to grapple with it. But in Private Life, writer-director Tamara Jenkins (The Savages) finds humor amid the struggle and uses it as a way to frame a marriage, one that’s become consumed by the attempt to have a child.

The result is a wise, often surprising comedy about pain, love, and makeshift families. It irreverently locates the funny side of the pain — injecting hormones into buttocks, having to deliver semen samples for IVF, readying the house for a home visit from an adoption agency — without making light of those experiences. Private Life is an accessible and complex portrait of two people whose ardent shared desire for a child leads them in some unconventional directions, and it’s a joy to watch whether or not you’ve shared their experience.

Private Life is the story of a couple that wants a baby more than anything

Rachel (Kathryn Hahn) — whose biblical namesake despaired for years over her failure to conceive — and Richard (Paul Giamatti) are in their 40s, New Yorkers who met while working in theater and who want more than anything to have a child. After experiencing heartbreak following a botched adoption attempt, they’ve been trying in vitro fertilization, a process that has rendered them both a ball of nerves (not least because of the hormones involved).

IVF is expensive and exhausting, particularly in the hands of an obnoxiously peppy doctor (Kelly Miller) who likes to fist-bump and say, “Boom!” way too much. It involves the humiliation of shots, probes, and gowns for a procedure that may not even work. And they’ve kept the whole thing a secret so as to not jeopardize the possibility of adoption if it doesn’t work.

When their cycle fails, Richard broaches the subject of an egg donor, to which Rachel initially reacts with vehement disgust but slowly, slowly starts to come around — especially when they hatch a plan to get their step-niece Sadie (Kayli Carter), who is looking for direction in the world, to donate her eggs. And conveniently, Sadie’s looking for a place to stay in the city after dropping out of college again. She lands on Rachel and Richard’s couch.

The setup sounds like sitcom material, but Jenkins infuses Rachel and Richard’s arguments and interactions with more depth than most sitcoms ever capture. Rachel is a bundle of nerves, a live wire, and also a smart and funny woman who loves her life with Richard even as she yearns for a child; Richard is supportive and patient but obviously exhausted and wondering how long he can continue the effort. Hahn and Giamatti bring their characteristic warmth-with-an-edge to their characters, and as their relationship unpacks itself onscreen, it feels authentic and lived-in, especially when Carter is added to the mix.

Private Life shows how nothing, in the end, is really private

It’s been 11 years since Jenkins’s last film, The Savages, in which Laura Linney and Philip Seymour Hoffman play siblings caring for their ailing father. Linney and Hoffman’s dynamic in that film bears some resemblance to Hahn and Giamatti’s in this one: people bound to one another (as siblings in the former and spouses in the latter) who find themselves shaken out of their routine by frustrating realities in their family lives, things they wish could just fix themselves so their lives could move forward.

But things rarely fix themselves. All of us are left to wait, frustrated, not knowing whether the future holds the fulfillment of our desires or an eternal waiting.

The stress of not knowing can take its toll on relationships, which Private Life illustrates richly. There’s friction between Richard and Rachel, to be sure. But it has its effect on the broader family — including Sadie’s parents (Molly Shannon and John Carroll Lynch), who semi-secretly find the couple’s efforts to conceive a bit over the top. Nobody wants to come right out and say it, but it’s clear they think the expense and effort is a waste, an “obsession” that not only isn’t worth it but probably indicates some kind of character flaw.

The wisdom of Private Life comes from insights like these. Infertility isn’t just a maddening and excruciating experience because of the struggle to conceive; it also puts a weight on the support systems on which families lean to take care of one another. Arguments that are kept in Richard and Rachel’s private lives seep out into their more public one (the film features a very memorable shouting match on the most publicly private place in the world: a sidewalk in Manhattan) and reveal how their private stressors put pressure on their joint bond. It’s moving and relatable for anyone who’s been in a relationship.

Private Life refuses to stick to just one mode of storytelling — it has slapstick and melodrama, heartbreak and hope. With all of those elements moving around inside one narrative, its insight feels faithful to life itself. Love, heartbreak, longing, and absurdity all coexist inside not just our private joys and pains, but the ones we share with others. We are lucky Jenkins shares all those things with us.

Private Life premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and is part of the official selection at the Toronto International Film Festival. It premieres on Netflix and in select theaters on October 5.