Looking Back at 2010s Films: Private Life (2018)

4 Oct

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By Tanner Smith

Continuing my series of Looking Back at 2010s Films, let me tell you a reason why lists are pointless: because they keep changing.

Case in point: “Private Life,” the Netflix Original “dramedy” by Tamara Jenkins, would have made my top-20 list for 2018, had I seen it a couple more times before compiling the list. (I instead gave it an Honorable Mention.) It makes me wonder, am I going to stand by the titles that are already on my decade-end list? Will I change anything by the time I publish it this December?

But whatever, it’s better to recognize a film’s true merits later than never. “Private Life” is a terrific film–I always knew it was…I just had to watch it a few more times to understand how terrific it actually was.

“Private Life” is about a middle-aged married couple (Richard and Rachel, played by Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn) who are desperately trying to have a child. After several failed attempts, they start to consider of using a donor egg to inseminate Rachel which would help make it possible to conceive. Enter Sadie (Kayli Carter), their 25-year-old niece (STEP-niece; the film makes it very clear that they’re not blood-related) who comes to live with Richard and Rachel while finishing her college writing program in absentia. They decide she could be a good candidate, and Sadie agrees to it, because she loves the two and wants to help them out and also because it will give her meaning in life.

I guess the first obvious reason as to why I like this film is the same reason anyone would like a film that’s mostly about characters and their relationships–the acting and the writing are both solid. The characters are written with depth and development, and the actors bring them to life wonderfully. And of course, when they’re together, that makes it even better. Richard and Rachel genuinely care for each other, and you can tell they’ve been through this mess of a married life for many, many years–and they’re going to stick with it, because neither one can imagine being with anyone else. And I love their relationship with Sadie. Sadie obviously idolizes them (they’re writers, so you could point towards them as inspirations for her aspiring craft), and they want to return the favor…by letting her do this huge favor for them.

All three of these actors do splendid work, and also delivering great work is Molly Shannon as Sadie’s condescending, pessimistic mother who knows a thing or two about tough love.

And of course, the subject matter isn’t really one that you’d think would make for great drama (or even great comedy). But as with any topic that’s hardly touched upon, it takes clever (and realistic) writing and a genuine heart to make it special.

“Private Life” is only writer/director Tamara Jenkins’ third film in 20 years–in 1998, she had “Slums of Beverly Hills”; in 2007, “The Savages”; and in 2018, “Private Life.” (She’s also credited as a screenwriter for 2018’s “Juliet, Naked.)” I guess like Debra Granik (whose “Winter’s Bone” and “Leave No Trace’ were eight years apart), she’s an indie filmmaker who just likes to take her time with projects.

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