As a child of separated parents, I can attest that when you’re younger it’s hard to see both sides of the argument. Hell, it’s hard seeing any side that isn’t yours—the confusion and the pain that come with this transition are stronger than anything you’ve felt so far. It’s easy, then, to blame one parent for the fallout over the other. But as you mature, it becomes easier to view divorce with more sympathy for both parties. This seems to be the case for Noah Baumbach. In 2005, he made The Squid and the Whale, a film about his parent’s divorce told almost exclusively from the perspective of the children. Now, 14 years later, he’s made Marriage Story, a film about divorce from the perspectives of all sides involved.
The film begins with Nicole (Scarlett Johansson), an actress, and Charlie (Adam Driver), a playwright, describing the things they love about each other to a mediator who’s helping them get through their divorce. The list is meant to remind them of why they chose each other as partners, but it also develops the two as more than just divorcees—they are each their own separate persons, with quirks and feelings that have evolved and changed as quickly as their eight-year-old son has grown.
It’s soon established that there have always been some bumps in their relationship, two of the main challenges being Charlie’s controlling tendencies and his work-based need to stay in New York versus Nicole’s desire to be in Los Angeles. Once she books a pilot in LA, she takes their son, Henry, with her and consults high-powered divorce attorney Nora (Laura Dern). Charlie flies out to visit. Divorce papers are served, and what was supposed to be an amicable divorce has now turned into a messy fight over who gets what furniture, who gets how much money, and, most importantly, who gets custody of Henry.
It’s the small moments of sincerity in between the nastier fight scenes that truly show how complex divorce is; they also help reveal the reality of the love that survives despite the loss and death of a marriage. During a meeting with their lawyers, Nicole orders food for Charlie because she remembers what he likes. After a big fight where the two say things they shouldn’t, they both sob, hug, and apologize. This complexity and this scene, specifically, allow the true range of Driver and Johansson’s performances to shine.
Because of my personal experience, I almost wish Baumbach had made it easy for me to choose a side. But the film works because it makes you see the good and bad in both parents. By the end, you’re rooting for both Charlie and Nicole, hoping they find their own happiness despite all the bad things and the pain they caused one another. v