Pippa Lee was wild at birth — covered in a short layer of vestigial fur that sent her hysterical mother tearing down a hospital hallway, screaming “I had a monkey!” This is the protagonist’s rabid beginning in The Private Lives of Pippa Lee, the newest film from writer/director Rebecca Miller.
“I happen to have a friend who was born furry. Her mother did in fact sort off freak out,” says Miller. In the film, Pippa’s mother quickly schools her in the social graces of 1960s middle-class America, turning her into a kind of living Barbie doll to be dressed up and doted on. Meanwhile, the mom is harbouring a diet-pill addiction and vicious mood swings. “Pippa is born wild like a little animal,” says Miller, “and she’s gradually tamed, almost literally with a leash and a whip.”
Miller is best known for her previous films The Ballad of Jack and Rose, starring her husband, Daniel Day-Lewis, and Personal Velocity, a movie about three women trying to find freedom from their own lives. She’s also an accomplished author, and writes film script adaptations of her own novels. The books, and the films, deal almost exclusively with family relationships and the internal conflicts of female characters.
In Private Lives, Blake Lively, of Gossip Girl fame, plays the teenage Pippa, who’s teetering on the edge of destruction, toying with sex, drugs and pornography. That changes when she meets Herb, a successful, married, much older publisher (Alan Arkin)—and immediately forms a powerful bond. But by middle age, Pippa has had a long marriage to the now geriatric Herb and is following him from their NYC apartment to a retirement community in Connecticut. Robin Wright plays the older Pippa as she dutifully carries on in her role as caregiver while quickly, but quietly, slipping into a nervous breakdown. Wright, no stranger to marital upheaval (she recently divorced Sean Penn) or to fiercely conflicted female roles, brings an airy innocence to Pippa that sways perfectly between grace and rebellion
“It’s a coming of age story for a mature woman who kind of chooses her own narrative again,” says Miller. “I think that there’s a moment for a lot of people where you realize ‘wait a minute, it is my life and I still get to decide how it goes.’ And I think that it’s never to late.”