Director Tamara Jenkins has always been interested in the family dynamic. The indie classic “Slums of Beverly Hills” was about failed upward mobility in the late 1970s. “The Savages” was about disinterested siblings who need to solve the problem of an ailing father.
After a ten-year break, Jenkins returned to open the 2018 Sundance Film Festival on Thursday night with “Private Life,” about a reproductively-challenged couple who need to start a family before they eviscerate the two-person unit they’ve already got.
Kathryn Hahn plays Rachel, a 41-year-old novelist who endures the constant pokes and prods of hormone needles administered by husband Richard (Paul Giamatti). They are studied in this medical ritual, as they are in other humiliating attempts to win a child like a saccharine sweet script they keep by the phone when called by pregnant women looking for couples to adopt their children.
It’s a big test for a fragile relationship, and it presented a similar challenge to the crowd at Park City’s Eccles Theater who seemed grateful for bursts of awkward humor (thanks mostly to Denis O’Hare’s creepy fertility doctor) in between the bleak news of failed conception and the anxiety of their cautious hope when they begin again.
“They’re addicted to fertility,” says Molly Shannon, who plays the wife of Richard’s stepbrother (John Carroll Lynch) and closest living relative. This couple has their own burden in 25-year-old daughter Sadie, played the manic-pixie-upstart of this year’s festival, actress Kayli Carter.
Sadie can’t commit to finishing college, she’s aching to head to New York City where her dear Aunt Rachel and Uncle Richard said she’s always welcome to crash.
It doesn’t take long for these three lost souls to shack up in a loft on Avenue A, and Sadie’s surrogate mother and father pitch her the inevitable: Sadie donates her egg to them, gets a $10,000 check and everyone feels sated knowing this family can finally start.
But this is Tamara Jenkins, and satisfying the need never comes easy — especially when family is there, demanding their own be served.
Sadie is over-eager and focused more on boys and her short fiction writing than she is on arriving to doctors appointments on time. Richard and Rachel are lost in the fantasy of promise that their houseguest represents. They are not looking at what history has already taught them.
Richard and Rachel ironically neglect what Sadie really needs — guidance, stability, discipline. Not the immense pressure of helping her elders get their dreams. The young woman caves under the pressure, and winds up overdoing it on hormone therapy. She puts her health and own reproductive in jeopardy, forcing the adults to step and act like parents. Even if they can never be parents.
“Private Life” will premiere on Netflix later this year.