From the profound to the mundane, Netflix’s Marriage Story tackles the secret, painful world of divorce like no storytelling medium I have ever seen. The writing, directing, and acting were astounding. Nominated for more awards than I can realistically list here (six Golden Globe noms alone, including best actor, best actress, and best screenplay), there’s been enough buzz about Marriage Story that people now know the movie isn’t actually about a marriage. It’s about the ending of one.
As someone who went through a divorce this year, I had to pick my jaw up off the floor multiple times throughout the film because of its relatability. I say this as someone whose marriage and divorce were nothing like Nicole and Charlie’s upper-class-white-people massively expensive, litigious, acrimonious shit-show. But that’s the brilliance of this movie: you don’t have to be like these characters to find Marriage Story’s depiction of divorce relatable and validating.
Script writer Noah Baumbach unearths and shines a bright spotlight on the most intimate, painful aspects of unraveling a marriage where a child is involved. He shows the resentment, contempt, and rage (climaxing in a verbal fight scene that is both brilliantly acted and physically painful to watch), but he also portrays a humanity and tenderness that is almost never present in depictions of divorce, but definitely exists in real life.
In one scene, Nicole’s house has a power outage late in the evening, and Charlie drives over to have a look at the breaker. Their interaction as he comes to her aid is civil, almost tender. In another scene, Nicole comforts Charlie after he says the worst thing one person could say to another and then collapses, overcome with guilt. At one point, they’re attending a meeting with their attorneys negotiating the terms of the divorce, and after lobbing a series of biting accusations at one another, the attorney’s assistant points out that they should think about getting some lunch. All cheerfully agree and the menu is passed around the conference table.
My divorce was not contentious like Nicole and Charlie’s, but this surreal shift in energy felt familiar to me. I marveled many times at my and my former husband’s ability to be friendly and kind to one another when we each had so many reasons to be hurt and angry, when perhaps just moments before we’d had a terrible argument. Because even though we’re hurt and angry, we are not terrible people after all.
In some analyses of the movie, critics and viewers attempt to assign blame — is Nicole more at fault? Or is Charlie at fault? Some critics clearly wanted to pin the blame on one character or the other, but for me the genius of Marriage Story lies in the difficulty of identifying a villain. Both characters are deeply flawed individuals doing the best they know how. In other words, they are all of us.
Before you run to watch this movie (clearly I loved it), let’s talk about the hard stuff. For many people, Marriage Story is triggering.
If you are someone who has experienced a contentious divorce first-hand or been the child in that situation, Marriage Story could be incredibly painful to watch, especially the fight scene, which includes intense verbal attacks. One friend of mine said it brought back memories of overhearing their own parents screaming at each other in the next room and the helplessness they felt in those moments.
Watching Nicole and Charlie pass their son Henry back and forth is painful for anyone who has experienced this either as a parent or as a child. It’s what hit home most for me. Henry perfectly portrays the innocent, outward adaptability and brutal honesty of so many children who find themselves at the center of a divorce. One scene in particular culminates in a heartbreaking visual of Henry literally caught between his two parents, arms stretched wide, his father pulling one arm while he pulls on his mother’s arm, not wanting to leave.
It would be understandable that anyone who is currently going through a separation or is still traumatized by having been through one might find Marriage Story too difficult to watch. Despite having been through my own divorce last year, I am fortunate that my former spouse and I were able to complete the process via a mediator with far less animosity and expense than Nicole and Charlie. I can imagine that watching this couple spiral away from their original amicable plan of using a mediator will hit close to home for anyone who has experienced something similar.
Yet, despite the rawness of Marriage Story, the consensus among people who have seen it seems to be that it’s worth the watch (many are refusing to watch it due to the potentially triggering aspects). Here is my personal takeaway: the brilliance of the movie, the writing, the acting, the directing, the music, and even the flawlessly placed splashes of comedy, made up for the sheer intensity of it. Go in, or don’t go in, knowing what you’re getting into. Marriage Story is no jaunty rom-com, but it is a stunning work of art.
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