I was nervous to see Marriage Story, because I thought it would rip open feelings packed down deep inside. I imagined I’d be left a quaking, crying disaster, unable to exit the theatre—but that’s not what happened.
Since it’s a film about divorce, and I’ve lived through two (as a child, and an adult), it hit home. But to my surprise, when the credits rolled, I found myself smiling widely, exhaling deeply and exchanging glances with strangers in nearby seats–all of us projecting a collective “w-o-w”. If I didn’t have to get home to my own family, I’d likely have settled in for a second viewing right then and there.Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story is a masterpiece.
Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver) operate a successful theatre company in Brooklyn; Charlie runs it, Nicole is an actor in it. After years of being directed by her husband, Nicole realizes that she isn’t living out her dream. Instead, she’s coasting along as a supporting role in Charlie’s. She begins to resent him, which is compounded by their lacklustre romantic life and the daily stresses of parenting their son, Henry. Desperate for a change, Nicole jumps at the opportunity to take the lead role on a new pilot filming in LA. It’s where she grew up, where her family lives; and she hopes that the change of scenery will bring sunnier times. Thus begins the unraveling of their marriage.
My parents split when I was eight years old. There was sadness that hung in our home for years. Sometimes I’d hear my mom crying. I wouldn’t know where in the house she was exactly—we had a big house—but I’d follow the cry and find her weeping, alone. Sometimes I’d ask her what was wrong, and other times, I would just silently watch from a place where she couldn’t see me. I remember when I opened the door and saw all of dad’s shoes tossed across our front lawn. I remember when he began sleeping in the guest room. At that point, I had a hunch that things would never be normal again.
We had a living room at the front of the house that wasn’t used much. It had a thick blue carpet with patterns that I liked to follow with my hands. At the back of the room, there was a shelf lined with bright yellow National Geographic spines, that I’d slowly peel through.  Objects on the shelf proved that my parents had a life before I was born, like the Mbira my mom brought home from Tanzania that I would occasionally strum, and a metronome from an antique store in London, where they lived in 1977.  It was a quiet room that was rarely used, except for special occasions like Mom’s Book Club, Christmas, and Dad’s 40th birthday party, we weren’t in there often. We were, however, beckoned to that room when my parents held our first ever “family meeting” to announce their separation. Everyone cried, and I ran out and locked myself in the bathroom.
I remember the pain of packing our ‘JOY’ bags to go to Dad’s house. They were called that because that was the brand name of the bag, and I can still recall the embroidered flowers on the handles; but the act of packing my things every Thursday—homework, Barbie dolls, clothes to wear—was anything but joyous. This is not to say we didn’t have fun at Dad’s. It was exciting to explore the house he rented in The Annex; it had a bunk bed, and strange cut outs in the wall that we could hide in. We did things at Dad’s that we didn’t do at Mom’s, like wear our snorkeling gear in the bathtub, heat up our jammies in the microwave, and when we couldn’t sleep, he’d throw us in the back of his car and we’d drive around the neighbourhood looking for raccoons.
Dad wasn’t good at cooking, and I remember once eating a dinner that was all yellow and beige: creamed corn, a bun with butter, chicken with no seasoning. I’m not sure if I said it out loud, but I definitely thought “This meal looks horrible; mom would never serve a meal like this.” There were trundle beds in the basement, and for kicks, he’d lift us into the wall, and then pull us back down again – we’d howl with laughter. It was a tough time in my childhood, but while I was grieving the family I once had, I was also getting to know my parents for who they really were–and I enjoyed seeing different sides of them.
The unravelling proved to be a process of discovery—for all of us. Baumbach clearly understands these numerous layers that reveal themselves when a family ruptures, and then slowly rebuilds. It’s a complicated mess of feelings, accurately portrayed in Marriage Story
As in real life, so much of the growth of the characters in Marriage Story happens in the unexpected tender moments: when Charlie chats with Henry while they’re stuck in a traffic jam, when Nicole offers to cut her ex-husband’s hair. From the texture of a rug to the colours of a meal: these small details that we think are inconsequential play an important role. Baumbach’s writing honours the deep textures of our lives, giving substance to inanimate objects that hold our pain, symbolize our loneliness.
Like many parents with small children; putting energy into us – as a couple – is a struggle. We don’t celebrate each other enough; we squabble too much. Things like dishes left in the sink, or losing the Petro-Canada points card, can often escalate into full-blown arguments. Of course, it’s also harder to be intimate when a child regularly comes stomping into your room in the middle of the night, and squeezes his way into the centre of the bed. Exhaustion is a constant, date nights are expensive–marriage isn’t easy, especially after kids. This is a hard truth to admit, because sometimes, it can feel like we’re failing. 
Problem solving, empathy, co-operation, communication: these are things that require constant energy and time. Marriage Story reminds us of that. It isn’t just a story about one family’s split, but it’s also about the reality that marriage isn’t a walk in the park. Nor should it be, because that’s not real life. The remarkable writing and stunning performances will loosen old memories and trigger a gush of big feelings. Marriage Story may cause some to reevaluate their current relationship, but I think for many more, it will remind them of the beauty – and enormity – of the love they already have.
Marriage Story is now playing at TIFF Bell Lightbox and will also screen at the brand new Paradise Cinema on Bloor. It will be available on Netflix starting December 6. Watch the trailer now