Nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, “Marriage Story” breaks your heart with its portrayal of a marriage heading toward divorce while at the same time trying to keep a family together. Yes, it is an oxymoron, but writer-director Noah Baumbach weaves the story of two people and a sweet little boy who desperately love each other but somehow can’t get on the same page.
With Oscar-nominated performances by Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver playing Nicole and Charlie Barber, “Marriage Story” focuses on two people who clearly love each other but seem to have missed the concept that marriage is full of give and take. Charlie is a playwright and director of a New York theater company. Nicole made it big in her native Los Angeles as a teenage actress. After marrying Charlie, she becomes the principle actor of the theater company and they have raised their son, Henry (Azhy Robertson), in New York.
When Nicole gets the opportunity to shoot a television pilot back in Los Angeles, Charlie supports her going but with the clear understanding (at least in his mind) that her stay in LA would only be temporary. One might say that Nicole’s trip to LA was the beginning of the end but their problems started way before that.
The movie gives us a wonderful beginning with a montage of images as the voice-over describes what Nicole loves about Charlie and what Charlie loves about Nicole. It’s absolutely wonderful. Watch for how this shows up again near the end (had me balling my eyes out). What they love about each other are the little things that make marriages so full of joy but also suffering. Each spouse has their endearing qualities as well as their annoying quirks that are endured in love.
On the outside they look like a happy couple. They’re successful in their theater careers and they’re loving parents. Even as they prepare for separation, they’re amicable and agree that they can do it without the contention of getting lawyers involved.
Scarlett Johansson as Nicole and Adam Driver as Charlie in "Marriage Story." © 2020 Netflix. All Rights Reserved.
However, when Nicole moves to Los Angeles to shoot her TV pilot, she takes Henry with her. When the show gets picked up, she wants to stay. After all, her family is there and she’s been wanting to spend more time with them. Besides, she and Charlie had talked about spending significant time in Nicole's hometown but it never came about due to the success of the theater company. Nicole’s resentment seethes underneath. In Los Angeles, she meets with Nora Fanshaw (Laura Dern in an Oscar-winning performance), a well-regarded divorce attorney, who convinces Nicole to retain her services and go after Charlie. Hesitant at first, Nicole finally gives in.
We see most of the film from Charlie’s perspective as his easy-going personality deals with the confusion of Nicole’s insistence on being Los Angeles. The back-and-forth trips across the country so he can see Henry are wreaking havoc on the theater company. What he fails to see is that Nicole has been allowing him to follow his dream all these years but he’s never been able to see that she needs her dreams as well.
“Marriage Story” is a bit of a misnomer but who would watch a movie called “Divorce Story”? Or maybe it’s not a misnomer at all. Every marriage has a story, even the ones that end in divorce. Each person in the marriage has a story. In order for those two stories to become one and stay one (as God intends), serious work needs to be done. If the clear, open and honest communication needed for building relationships is missing, if spouses hold on to resentments rather than working through them, if people are unwilling to sacrifice some of their hopes and dreams for the other, if forgiveness and reconciliation is not offered, asked for, or accepted, then marriage stories end up as divorce stories.
Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver in "Marriage Story." © 2020 Netflix. All Rights Reserved.
I could see parish ministry using this film as a conversation starter for marriage preparation classes, especially about the importance of communication. Heartbreaking as this story is, it has potential to help healing conversations take place. If couples do not want their marriage story to end up like Nicole and Charlie’s, then perhaps this fictional story can be a bridge for couples struggling for whatever reason.
To facilitate using this film in prayer and conversation, the Pauline Center for Media Studies will be writing a “Meeting Jesus at the Movies” guide for “Marriage Story” in the near future. Keep an eye out here for it to be published online.