Marriage Story opens with a montage narrating the things Nicole and Charlie love about each other. These look like ordinary, everyday moments that only someone who loves you would notice. Bumping your head on the kitchen cabinet your partner left open. Cups of tea left around the house. The way you talk to strangers on the street. Taking care of your kid at night. It’s these little moments that really make up a life, a marriage and a love story. This love story takes place within a divorce.
Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) live in New York. Charlie directs a theater company and Nicloe is his lead actress. She used to live in Los Angeles and even had a memorable part in a movie. Now after years of life, marriage and a kid, Henry (Azhy Robertson), of about seven years old, Nicole wants to divorce. She moves out to live in LA with their son to shoot a TV pilot, but she doesn’t tell Charlie that she intends to stay.
This lack of communication is bewildering to Charlie, who assumes they are and always will be a New York based family. Soon, Nicole is doing more things her own way, getting a divorce lawyer (Laura Dern) when they agreed before to not use lawyers. While Nicole is busy being the primary parent for their son and expanding her career, Charlie is stretched thin trying to keep his play and theater company going in New York while also frequenting to LA to deal with this divorce and try to be present for his son.
One of my favorite scenes in the film is when the power goes out at Nicole’s place. Henry is with his father for the night and video chatting with his mom when she can’t open her gate. Without hesitation Charlie and Henry go to help her. Charlie gets things working again and while he’s there Nicole gives him a quick haircut. Henry falls asleep and Nicole wants to just bring him inside, but Charlie reminds her it’s his night. The whole scene is peaceful and sweet in a dutiful way. When the gate closes between them we see a look of sadness and longing. We get a sense that this is how they’re lives together will be now, civil and helping each other but no longer lovers.
There is so, so much to unpack in this movie, but one of the themes that hit me hardest is how parents are perceived and judged, especially under the microscope of divorce. The lawyers bring everything out and turn normal little moments into weapons of shame. We see Charlie nervously stage his new apartment before a social worker visits to observe him and Henry together. It’s probably the most pressure he’s ever been under to be a good father. Meanwhile, Nora preps Nicole for questioning about her personal life and drinking habits, warning her that her honest answers won’t be good enough. I love how she bluntly points out the double standard against all women, “People don’t accept mothers who drink too much wine and yell at their child and call him an asshole. I get it. I do it too. We can accept an imperfect dad. Let’s face it, the idea of a good father was only invented like 30 years ago. … We love them for their fallibilities, but people absolutely don’t accept those same failings in mothers.”
Marriage Story is nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Picture, original screenplay and original score. Laura Dern is nominated for supporting actress. Adam Driver is nominated for lead actor. And Scarlett Johansson is nominated for best actress. She’s also nominated for her supporting role in Jojo Rabbit. She’s one of the few actors to earn to acting nominations in one year.
What Marriage Story does best is show a realistic couple trying to separate their lives the best they can. For Nicole, every step is both brave and scary, though she tries not to show it. Thankfully she has family to support her, though her mother is not exactly great at it, but she does add a lot of laughs to the film. Nicole’s lawyer, Nora is the first person (maybe in her whole life) to really ask Nicole what she wants and validates that what she wants is important. In a wonderful monologue, Nicole describes how she and Charlie came together and how she just fell into his life and she never really made her own. It’s sad and probably rings very true to other people’s love stories. For Nicole to pursue her own “aliveness” is an act of hope.
“Getting divorced with a kid is one of the hardest things to do. It’s like a death without a body.”