There’s a pleasant, old-fashioned feel to Alpha.
Tamara Jenkins returned tonight to Park City, a decade after she blew the roof off Sundance with “The Savages,” a film that would go on to earn four Oscar nominations. Her new film is “Private Life,” a delicate, lived-in story of a couple going through the emotionally tumultuous process of trying to have a child. Like “The Savages,” it features a pair of wonderfully believable performances from two actors who clearly relish the opportunity to play people caught in something that feels genuine and resonant. There are elements on the fringe of “Private Life”—a few supporting performances, the 127-minute length, a couple of sitcomish turns—that keep it from connecting as much I wanted it to, but the work by Paul Giamatti and Kathryn Hahn always holds it together.
The two excellent performers star as Rachel and Richard, a pair of lifelong New Yorkers who have been trying to have a child, either through fertility treatments or adoption, for years. Fights swirl at points about why they waited to have children, although it’s never explicitly important why they did—the point is merely that they did, and now they’re having great difficulty becoming parents. In the opening scenes of the film, we see in explicit detail how physically and emotionally painful this process has been for them. They have scripts for when they get a phone call from young parents looking for a couple to adopt; Rachel’s hormones are an absolute rollercoaster due to all the shots she has to take; and their relationship has been defined by their pursuit, to the point where they seem to be losing emotional, and physical, connection. And then there's the fact that the whole thing costs enough to bankrupt most families. Jenkins deftly opens doors to private pain and there’s inherent value in that—this is something that couples go through all the time, and it’s not something a lot of people even know about, much less see on film.
And then “Private Life” takes its major turn into something a bit more forced when Rachel and Richard’s step-niece, Sadie (Kayli Carter), comes to stay with them just as their doctor is suggesting an egg donor. Rachel and Richard have always been surrogate parents to Sadie, and they realize that their 25-year-old niece would be a perfect candidate to solve their fertility problem. Sadie’s parents (played way too broadly by Molly Shannon and too subdued by John Carroll Lynch) are conflicted about her decision, but she moves forward, almost as if she feels like this has finally given her some missing purpose in life.
While there are earth-shaking emotions at play, at its best, “Private Life” is a film of beautiful minor beats. There are details in Rachel and Richard’s life—for example, every inch of the production design of a NY apartment occupied by a writer and a theatre director seems considered—that greatly enhance this character study. We don’t see that subgenre of film that often anymore, as so many dramas feel like they have something important to say about the entire human condition. This is a 'character study,' the story of Rachel, Richard, and Sadie—and it works best when it allows those three characters to breathe, to live, and to feel.
The problem is that it doesn’t always do that. There are beats that could accurately be called sitcomish, especially with Sadie’s relationship with her mother and one she develops with a co-worker, played by You’re the Worst’s Desmin Borges. And those beats damage the film more than they would in a lesser work overall because they contrast so greatly with the believability at the narrative's core. At 127 minutes, it’s especially frustrating because it’s easy to see where the film could be trimmed of some of this less-believable fat.
And yet the movie never strays too far away from what makes it work—namely, great performances from Hahn and Giamatti, two actors who likely recognized that Hollywood and even indie cinema doesn’t often present performers with characters who feel this complete. Let’s hope it doesn’t take another decade for Jenkins to do it again.
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