I am a firm believer that if you ever feel like a given year has been a “weak year” for movies, you probably just haven’t seen enough movies. It’s a conclusion I’ve come to after broadening my own movie watching routines and tastes. There are always diamonds in the rough – movies that didn’t get talked about or weren’t found at your local multiplex that are absolutely fantastic.
I think the same can be said for acting performances, and I believe Kathryn Hahn’s lead performance in Private Life is one of this year’s diamonds in the rough.
The reason this movie wasn’t at your local theater is pretty simple – it’s a Netflix film. As such, you might think it’s been widely viewed and discussed. While I’ve certainly seen rave reviews for the film on certain circles of Twitter, I don’t feel that it has been widely discussed in general.
More relevant to this discussion, however, is the fact that Hahn has not found her name on the shortlist for awards consideration – at least not yet. Hahn did receive a nomination for Best Actress from the Gotham Awards, but she failed to receive the equivalent nomination from the Film Independent Spirit Awards. For her to receive any kind of Oscar buzz, she would need to pick up quite a bit of momentum here at the early stages of the race. The uneven performance so far is unfortunate, because I think Hahn’s performance is clearly one of the year’s best.
An Important Film about an Important Subject
First off, if you haven’t seen Private Life, I highly encourage you to go watch it right now on Netflix. Often when discussing the acting races, it helps an actor or actress if their film is well-regarded. That’s not always a necessary component, but it certainly helps.
With Private Life, you have a film about a subject that doesn’t often make its way to the movies – fertility issues. Recently, I’ve heard from friends who have gone through fertility issues of their own talk about how the subject just isn’t discussed enough. People in that incredibly difficult situation often feel that they are alone. That nobody else is going through this. The reality is that many people have had similar struggles of their own. That this film chose to tackle this subject should be applauded.
What makes this such an incredible film is that it uses that important topic as an avenue into so much more. In many ways, this is a film about mortality in general, and the prisms through which we view our lives. I loved Catherine Shoard’s fantastic interview of Hahn and director Tamara Jenkins in The Guardian where they both talked about how the film handles such large and difficult subjects. That it does so in such an empathetic and nuanced way makes it one of the year’s best films, in my opinion.
On top of that, the fact that it is directed by Jenkins in particular is even more reason to consider Hahn an awards contender. Jenkins has awards pedigree herself – she wrote and directed the 2007 dramedy The Savages which went on to garner Oscar nominations for Best Screenplay (Jenkins) and Best Actress (Laura Linney). The nomination for Linney is especially key here, and I think it outlines a path that Hahn could conceivably follow. And already this year Jenkins has received a Best Director nod from the Spirits and a Best Screenplay nod from the Gothams.
Put it all together, and you have a strong film with a strong narrative surrounding it. That should be a solid foundation on which Hahn’s awards run could be built. But you can’t compete for an acting award if your performance doesn’t hold up. You have to stand out, and I believe that Hahn’s performance does just that.
Comedic Talent and Powerful Acting Decisions
Even if you don’t think you are, you’re probably familiar with Kathryn Hahn. Her IMDB page is riddled with memorable comedic roles in films like Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and Step Brothers. Personally, my favorite role of hers prior to seeing her in Private Life was her run on the TV show Parks and Recreation as Jennifer Barkley, the campaign manager for Nick Newport. No matter where you’ve seen her, odds are that it’s been in a comedic role. That makes sense, because her comedic timing is incredible. She has a gift for comedy, and it’s no wonder that her talent has led her to such roles.
While her comedic talent certainly makes its way into Private Life at times, it is her ability to play against that type that makes her performance so memorable.
In the film, Rachel Biegler (Hahn) and her husband, Richard Grimes (Paul Giamatti), are a middle-aged couple who are desperate for a child. They’ve tried everything. Now, they are attempting in vitro fertilization. The process is excruciating, and it compels them to make a decision that neither one of them saw coming. This decision provides the basis for much of the film’s plot.
Certainly that would be a difficult situation for any couple. It doesn’t jump out at you as being a situation rife with comedic opportunities, and there are certainly parts of the film that are just heartbreaking. At the same time, there are aspects of the situation that are so frustrating that they become funny in a “throw up your hands” sort of way. Like, when you’ve tried everything and you still aren’t having results, is it time to just accept that nature is playing some kind of sick joke?
A conversation between Rachel and Richard about whether or not their risqué painting will offend the adoption agent coming over to their apartment is just such an interaction. These are the moments where Hahn’s incredible comedic talent elevate the material.
But if that’s all she brought to the table, the film wouldn’t completely work. This film is a dramedy in the truest sense of the word. There’s some comedy, yes, but you have to be able to bring the dramatic chops too. Hahn does this in spades.
Especially in the film’s early scenes as Rachel and Richard navigate the healthcare and fertility systems, Hahn’s dramatic talent is on full display. Watch her reactions to her husband and to the doctors in the film’s early scenes. You learn so much about her as a character through those reactions. They are subtle cues, so much so that I needed a second watch to catch some of them. But, as the film continues and we learn more of Rachel’s backstory, Hahn’s choices in the early portions of the film become that much more resonant.
Part of the issue, as it always is with Netflix, is the streaming giant’s promotion of its own movies, or lack thereof. I had to type P-R-I-V into the search bar before it even came up. It wasn’t on the home screen and it wasn’t even on the “Netflix Originals” bar even though I scrolled all the way through. Despite all that, you must not miss this film. If you do, you’d be missing one of the year’s best performances from Kathryn Hahn.