Hollywood’s depiction of infertility over the years has been, well, let’s say sporadic. When it does make it on to the screen, it’s usually played for laughs. Whether it’s adoption in Juno, surrogacy in Baby Mama or infertility in Raising Arizona, when it comes to women’s wombs, film execs have decided they need to throw in a good chuckle to make the subject more palatable. Just in case the grim reality of it all drives viewers away screaming in horror.
Private Life is a comedy about infertility but rather than using it as a plot device, it delves into the nitty gritty of IVF, egg donation and adoption, showing what a long, hard and lonely slog it really is. Its story of a middle-aged couple in New York struggling to conceive – inspired by writer and director Tamara Jenkins’ own experiences – feels genuinely authentic. It’s an intimate and unflinching look at the pain and heartache of infertility that is deeply compassionate and, at times, very funny.
Released at the end of 2018 on Netflix, it was given a warm pat on the back by critics before being forgotten fairly swiftly in the deluge of other offerings on the streaming platform. Which is a crying shame as it’s up there with the likes of Marriage Story and Roma as one of the platform’s finest originals. A large part of this is down to Kathryn Hahn and Paul Giamatti as Rachel and Richard, a successful artistic couple in their 40s who are not just emotionally spent but also financially bust after countless failed IVF cycles. They’re still determined to cast the fertility net far and wide by making one last-ditch attempt at IVF as they also explore adoption.
But their rocky road to parenthood has left its mark. She is anxious, overwrought and on the edge. He is snappy, frustrated and plain exhausted. Their relationship is on the verge of imploding and they’re barely holding it together for their medical appointments. Their disapproving sister-in-law Cynthia (the always brilliant Molly Shannon) snipes that they’re “fertility junkies”. While Richard insists to his wife as they’re forced to spend another $10,000 on surgery: “We’re not insane, we’re normal.”
Separately, it’s always a joy to spend time in Hahn and Giamatti’s company but together they are a formidable duo. Their performances are wonderfully naturalistic; they breathe life into their roles by filling the jagged corners of their characters with poignancy. Hahn is outstanding as she teeters between barely contained rage and raw vulnerability while Giamatti skillfully conveys how dejected Richard has become, beaten down by his own sadness. Both are equally compelling as they demonstrate in their different ways how this primal need to have a child does not listen to reason or to a beloved spouse or to anyone really but their own spluttering biological clock. Even if it threatens to tip into something toxic and unhealthy.
Things take a turn when they decide to ask their stepniece Sadie (Kayli Carter), a 25-year-old college dropout who is trying to figure out what to do with her life, to be their egg donor. She’s game but perhaps still too emotionally immature to grasp the full implications of what she’s signing on for. Jenkins reveals how a deeply private matter like infertility soon becomes public property; your body grabbed by strangers’ hands (in one scene a doctor asks Rachel if she likes prog rock midway through a medical procedure) and your grief casually laid bare for friends and families. She’s also adept in finding the wry humour that lurks within darker moments with plenty of bittersweet laughs along the way.
Her script exposes some of the conflicting messages that we’re fed as a society about fertility especially how women are told to go forth and forge a career and then chided for waiting too long to try to have a baby. It also touches on the other ways women’s bodies betray them as they age when the hell of menopause kicks in, as Cynthia, plucking out a chin hair one night, discovers. The film doesn’t gloss over the repetitive nature of the fertility hamster wheel. Not just with the constant injections, the mind-numbing paperwork, the faceless waiting rooms and how tooth-pullingly awkward each step is. But also the seemingly endless cycle of burgeoning hope that is wiped out by crushing disappointment and heartbreak.
Private Life shows us that despite the tears, the anguish and the emotional scars that linger on, it’s this hope which refuses to be extinguished. And that is what makes us human.
Private Life is available to stream on Netflix in the US and UK