If you’re looking for something to watch while you eat your third dinner roll and fourth piece of pie this Thanksgiving, look no further than Private Life. Thanksgiving movies are shockingly hard to come by. There are a plethora of Halloween and Christmas gems out there, but as the middle-child holiday, Thanksgiving rarely gets a chance to shine. But while the quantity of films featuring Turkey Day may be small, the quality of films we do have — particularly Tamara Jenkins’ 2018 dramedy — more than makes up for it.
Private Life focuses on New York writers Rachel (Kathryn Hahn, robbed of an Oscar nomination for her performance) and Richard (Paul Giamatti, also robbed) as they struggle to have a child. They try everything – fertility treatments, a surrogate, adoption – with each path eventually leading to heartbreak. That is, until their 25-year-old step-niece Sadie (breakout star Kayli Carter) enters the mix. A talented yet aimless artist looking for purpose, Sadie agrees to donate her eggs so their dreams of becoming parents can come true. It’s an offer that leads to a beautiful, complicated dynamic between the three of them as well as Sadie’s immediate family — namely her mother, Cynthia (the delightfully high-strung Molly Shannon). It’s the perfect Thanksgiving flick for a multitude of reasons.
‘Private Life’ Serves Up a Painfully Relatable Thanksgiving Dinner
The first and most obvious reason why Private Life is the quintessential Thanksgiving film is that a pivotal scene unfolds during the customary meal around halfway through the movie. Rachel, Richard, and Sadie – who’s living with the two in their loft while she finishes college online – drive up to Cynthia and Sadie’s stepdad Charlie’s (John Carroll Lynch) house to celebrate the holiday, and things get messy fast. When Cynthia prompts everyone to share something they’re grateful for, Sadie decides to drop the bomb that she’s donating her eggs – an announcement she hasn’t cleared with Rachel and Richard and news that has Cynthia fuming. Cynthia throws her napkin on the table and storms into the kitchen to aggressively carve the turkey while she and Sadie argue about whether she’s making a huge mistake.
Arguments are par for the course at any Thanksgiving dinner – drama is as traditional a dish as stuffing or mashed potatoes and gravy – and Private Life leans into this, seamlessly blending the heavy, dramatic moments with masterful beats of comedy. It’s the nuance and attention to detail that elevates this beyond a good Thanksgiving scene to one of the very best. While half the family is getting involved in Sadie and Cynthia’s fight in the kitchen, the other half remains in the dining room, obliviously listening to Uncle Bob (Fenton Lawless) drone on and on about sobriety in his own gratitude speech. Once the conflict escalates to a point beyond repair, Rachel, Richard, and Sadie quickly book it to their car. Cynthia, Charlie, and Sadie’s younger sister Charlotte (Emily Robinson) follow close behind, with Cynthia continuing to berate all of them while Charlie tries to hand them some tin-foiled leftovers through the car window.
And that’s not even mentioning a reference to a previous Thanksgiving where Sadie reveals she overheard Charlie tell her mother that Richard only has one testicle. In addition to overeating, oversharing is another popular Thanksgiving pastime, no matter what family you’re in.
The Power of Extended Family Shines in ‘Private Life’
Speaking of family, it’s another key component of Thanksgiving. But while the “nosy aunt asking when you’re going to get married” and “cringe-worthy politically incorrect uncle” are definitely stereotypes that exist for a reason, Private Life refreshingly takes a different approach. As an aspiring creative, Sadie feels more connected to her aunt and uncle that her own parents, even referring to Rachel and Richard as her “art mom and dad.” She cites them as role models and feels understood and validated by them in a unique and impactful way. “I feel closer to you guys than everyone else in my family,” she tells Richard. “You guys get it.”
Rachel and Richard, in turn, take her under their wing, allowing her to stay in their apartment, giving her an internship at their theater company, and providing notes on her writing – notes that eventually lead to her following in Rachel’s footsteps and getting accepted into a prestigious writing community. They become mentors, nurturing and supporting her in a way her parents can’t. Though many films show extended family as people you only see a few times a year, Private Life proves that you can be just as close – if not closer – to them as your immediate family.
‘Private Life’ Shows the Holidays Aren’t Always a Joyful Time
While Private Life celebrates the power of family, it also touches on a sadder reality: the fact that the holidays aren’t always a happy, easy time for everyone. Because of the intense focus on family and togetherness, feelings of loneliness and emptiness can be amplified. This is especially apparent in the film’s Halloween scenes. The movie covers a little over a year, and the first Halloween sees Richard and Rachel forget about the holiday entirely.
Depressed after disappointing news about their latest IVF treatment, the kids from their building knock on their door wanting candy, of which they have none to offer. It feels like salt in the wound – a stark reminder that they don’t have little ones to take trick-or-treating. The second Halloween sees Richard passing out candy before the two of them attend a parade among a sea of children in costumes. Although it feels slightly more hopeful, there’s still an unmistakable air of melancholy. It’s bittersweet.
Halloween acts as a kickoff of sorts to the holiday season, and one can’t help but realize they’re going to have many more of those moments throughout the next two months. Whether it’s seeing friends’ and relatives’ kids at gatherings (which we get a glimpse of twice in this movie: both in the form of slightly awkward children’s musical performances) or passing by toddlers sitting on Santa’s lap at the mall, everywhere they look, they are going to see the life they so desperately want: one they’re constantly surrounded by, yet one that’s out of reach. The holidays are a time when family is the focus. Unfortunately, this means that those having trouble starting their own are constantly reminded of what they don’t have.
‘Private Life’ Highlights the Complications of Appreciation
A central theme of Thanksgiving is obviously being grateful for the things you have, and Private Life doesn’t shy away from seeing Rachel and Richard grapple with this. By all intents and purposes, the two of them are living a comfortable life: they have a gorgeous loft in New York City, Richard has had several successful plays over the years, and Rachel has been published in Tin House and The New Yorker. Their careers are thriving. Rachel’s friend even comments on how exciting it is that Rachel has a book coming out, lamenting that she hasn’t been able to write since her baby was born. Sadie reminds Cynthia that she always told her she had to sacrifice her professional life to raise children – something Rachel and Richard haven’t had to choose between. There are upsides and privileges to not having children.
Richard points this out at one point, reminding Rachel that it was their choice to keep pushing back the date they were going to start trying for kids: after he finished a play, after she published a story, after she completed a book, etc. But Rachel still feels betrayed. All her life, she felt like she was told she could have it all – that it was possible to thrive in her career and have a family – and now it seems that was all a ruse. In a way, she feels like she’s being punished for choosing to focus on her writing and now has fears and regrets it may be too late. Being thankful is a tricky, sometimes ugly business, as it always seems like the grass is greener on the other side. Private Life explores this notion head-on.
The Bottom Line
Private Life is the perfect movie to get you in the Thanksgiving spirit. Not only does it have an expertly executed sequence that takes place on the holiday, but it dives into themes of family and thankfulness – what the occasion is all about. Better yet, it shows families as they truly are, in all their dysfunctional, wonderfully chaotic glory.
It doesn’t shy away from difficult topics that are often neglected – delving into darker, more somber aspects of the holiday, like feeling unfulfilled or isolated from the friends and family you’re surrounded by – in a raw, real way. However, there’s an inherent warmth and humor about it, too, from the love that clearly permeates every familial interaction – especially between the main trio – down to the cozy set and costume design. Grab a plate of leftovers (and maybe a tissue or two), and make Private Life your Thanksgiving watch this year. You’ll be grateful you did.