“So break me to small parts. Let go in small doses. But spare some for spare parts. There might be some good ones.” -Regina Spektor
This spring, I started having chronic headaches. When I say chronic, I mean that there is usually not a point in the day in which they are not present in some capacity. I visited doctor after doctor after doctor, until they finally found something small in a CT scan. One doctor said, “This might be something we’d take care of with surgery.” (Like, brain surgery.) “Let’s wait for the MRI.”
The good news is that I don’t need brain surgery. The bad news is that the headaches haven’t gone away. And despite all the uncertainty and dead ends and unyielding pain, this ordeal has only been the second most stressful thing that happened this year. The first was—is—my divorce.
With 13 years of history and two preteen daughters between us, it wasn’t an easy decision. The ongoing aftermath, coupled with the medical stuff, hasn’t made it any easier. The places within me and around me where the foundation of my life used to be feel unfamiliar. And in the space where the most influential relationship of my life used to reside, there is a startling lack of empathy now. I’m still getting used to it, still unsure of how to fill those spaces with anything other than anxiety and sadness.
Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story, by providence, happened to premiere on Netflix during one of the first weekends our daughters spent with their dad, when the space around me felt even emptier than usual. I mostly knew what I was getting myself into when I turned it on. But instead of finding it devastating, like I was sort-of expecting, I found it deeply healing instead. Because Marriage Story has nothing but empathy, the kind I’ve been craving, for Charlie and Nicole Barber—even when it would be easy not to, and especially when they have so little for each other.
Marriage Story begins with a kindness, or at least an attempt at one. Charlie (Adam Driver) and Nicole (Scarlett Johannson), a theater director husband and his actress wife, take turns telling us what they love about one another. It’s immediately clear that theirs was a deep love; they know each other well, in exactly the ways you’d expect a functioning married couple would. These are epistolary introductions, excerpts from letters they’ve written as part of their divorce counseling. But Nicole backs out abruptly when she learns she has to read hers out loud, frustrating both Charlie and their counselor.
It’s good that we learn what is good about them, first. Because throughout Marriage Story, we come to see the absolute worst in both of them, too. As they navigate an increasingly messy coast-to-coast divorce, battling over custody of their son Henry (Azhy Robertson), their initial promise that they want it to be easy, and want the same thing, dissolves. Some would argue that Marriage Story lends more empathy to one or the other. But to me, it seems it’s objectively fair to both Charlie and Nicole, because it allows us to see the good and bad from both of them.
All breakup films ultimately tell that same story: people who were once in love choose to stop being together. The thing about break-up movies, though, is despite the simplicity at the core of the story, there are infinite perspectives to explore. Marriage Story, Baumbach’s latest entry into this pantheon, joins a host of incredible titles—Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Kramer vs. Kramer, Blue Valentine, Scenes From a Marriage, as well as his own, earlier film, The Squid and the Whale. In varying ways, these films all approach the uniquely devastating experience of breaking your marriage, and your life, apart.
Baumbach understands this story intimately, because he’s lived it, and has been open about the fact that his own divorce inspired and influenced Marriage Story. The title may feel like it deceives, because it begins when Charlie and Nicole’s marriage is all but over. But it is the story of a marriage—just one, like so many others, that ultimately did not work.
The thing you don’t realize about divorce, until you are in the thick of separation, is how easily your emotions can take a backseat. Your days become about logistics, about who gets what, who lives where, who has custody when, and there’s not a lot of time for self-reflection. It’s numbing. When the numbness wears off, it’s a new kind of overwhelming. You realize that in the process of disassembling and reassembling your life piece by piece, you are living through heartbreak in slow motion.
Marriage Story captures that feeling with an almost perfect precision, because its 136 minutes, at times, feel like a bit of a slog. Moments that seem like they would feature prominently as symbols of the Barbers’ journey—Charlie’s career taking a hit or Nicole changing her hair— happen in the background. They serve as markers of time in the story and nothing more. Instead, much of the film focuses on the arduous details of ending a marriage. And it doesn’t spare how unbearably uncomfortable (Nicole freaking out about how to serve Charlie with his divorce papers) and mundane (Charlie buying a duplicate set of board games to play with Henry) those details can be.
By focusing on the gradual toll that the process of divorcing takes on them, by making us live through these moments with the characters, Baumbach makes it nearly impossible not to feel some amount of sympathy for everyone involved. Nicole is the less emotional, more pragmatic one, ready to just move on with their life. But there is still something incredibly heartbreaking about the crisis that led Nicole to finally calling it quits with Charlie.
During a legal consultation, Nora Fanshaw (an unsurprisingly perfect Laura Dern) asks Nicole what happened between her and Charlie, and she doesn’t have a simple answer. Her attempts to explain result in her pacing the room while rattling off a laundry list of reasons that span the entire length of her marriage. She catalogues how she lost herself, bit by bit; how she sort-of accidentally fell in love with Charlie, how she put his career before hers, put his life before hers, and ultimately lost her sense of who she was.
When she finally gets to the end, and admits that she’s also pretty sure he cheated on her, it’s almost funny. The thing that would break most marriages, in this case, sounds like an afterthought. Though she doesn’t say it in exactly these words, it’s clear that, at least for Nicole, the marriage never really worked.
Scarlett Johansson has a deceptively difficult job in Marriage Story. The roots of Nicole’s motivations, and thus much of the empathy we can feel for her, take place before the film begins. In less careful hands, she might seem like a woman who cares little for the mess she is making of her family’s life. But even in her most unlikeable moments—when she’s hacking into Charlie’s email to look for proof of infidelity, or coolly telling him during a visit to her mother’s that he’ll have to find another place to stay—there’s an undercurrent of sadness in Nicole that she holds close to her chest and only lets out in tiny fragments—a quickly concealed tear down her cheek during a bedtime story, a more pronounced breakdown when she’s safely alone in the bedroom they used to share.
Though he initially seems somewhat subdued about the whole thing, Charlie is ultimately the one left more vulnerable. He realizes, probably too late, that he’s going to have to fight hard to stay in Henry’s life. It’s devastating to watch him try to do that, knowing that both the courts, and the woman he used to rely on, are not on his side.
He’s a good dad. But when a social worker comes by to monitor his interactions with Henry, he snaps into Director Mode, setting the scene for a Happy Home, complete with decorative house plants and a well-balanced dinner. And, in his desperate attempt to performatively hit as many marks as possible on the Good Dad checklist, he winds up seeming erratic and detached from Henry. The evening ends with him nearly bleeding out on his kitchen floor after he cuts himself while trying to illustrate how he does not let Henry play with his pocket knife.
Here, he is resigned—too tired to fight anymore. Later, when he stands in front of his theater troupe and sings an impromptu rendition of “Being Alive,” he has a different kind of melancholy. It’s not a song about divorce, but in that moment, it feels like a song about his divorce: desperate for what he lost, sad for what he never had, and still, somehow, hopeful. In these moments, and throughout Marriage Story, Adam Driver is unfailingly believable as a man scrambling to stay upright as the rug is being pulled out from under him. Charlie’s fragility is palpable, because Driver’s is, too.
While these two actors are great on their own, more importantly, they are exceedingly believable as a couple that used to be in love. Their stilted chemistry ebbs and flows, in the unique way it often can during the death rattle of a relationship. They carry on conversations with a lived-in ease, even though they frequently butt heads, but there are awkward silences, too, and awkward moments when second nature leads them to reach out with an affection they’re no longer supposed to offer one another. They know each other intimately, but don’t know how to be around each other anymore.
The problem with empathy is that it’s easy to set aside when you feel like you’re not getting any in return. At the outset, Charlie and Nicole promise to stay friendly and keep things civil, and approach most of their interactions with the intention to keep those promises. Nicole is genuinely happy for Charlie when he gets a MacArthur Grant. Charlie celebrates Nicole’s burgeoning career as a director. Nicole offers to give Charlie a haircut when she notices that he’s in dire need of one. Charlie drops what he’s doing to help Nicole fix the gate to her nice new house, then goes back home to his sparse apartment.
They try. At first, they want to do the whole divorce without lawyers. But when they cannot agree on which coast Henry’s home base will be, lawyers get involved, and they start keeping tabs on each other, start creating an arsenal to fight with. There’s no longer room for civility, because they’ve mostly stopped speaking to each other at all.
At a hearing that was supposed to be a formality, Charlie’s lawyer, Jay Marotta (a charismatically ruthless Ray Liotta) and Nicole’s lawyer (still Laura Dern, still perfect) trade barbs on behalf of their clients. They resort to revealing slip-ups that, at the time, seemed more like normal human fumblings than evidence of either’s inability to parent their child. By the end of the hearing, Nicole and Charlie have been painted, alternately, as alcoholic and negligent, and both look defeated.
The context of those seemingly small moments has been erased in an attempt to gain an upper hand. The context for who they were to each other, and why they are even at the courthouse—to do what’s best for their son—melts away. (It’s maybe a little bit ironic that the scene that follows quickly made the rounds on social media, lifted out of context entirely, to be summarily judged and jeered at.)
Worn down by the proceedings, neither Charlie nor Nicole are at their best when they meet at his apartment after the court hearing to hash things out, face to face. What begins as a quiet attempt to try and find common ground about Henry’s future quickly devolves into an argument over the details of their marriage, rather than their divorce. There were a lot of problems in their marriage; they can’t even agree which of their differences are irreconcilable. Even though they shared a home, and a bed, and a child, and a career together, they have been living incompatible versions of the same life.
They remember pivotal moments completely differently. They assumed far too much of each other and let those assumptions become facts they refuse to reconsider. They blame each other for making one another miserable. It’s no wonder their resentment reaches the horrific breaking point that it does.
Charlie and Nicole are not monsters. But if you were to see just this moment between them, they might seem like they are. If you were to live through their perspective of their marriage, you might understand how they’ve come to see each other that way. Their conversation, which rapidly devolves into an unrelenting airing of grievances, is probably the most honest they have been with each other in years. It is also extreme and brutal. They throw everything they can at each other, every slight and judgement they’d previously held in for the sake of civility.
Charlie punches a wall. Nicole yells, “I can’t believe I have to know you forever!” A moment later, Charlie fires back, “Every day, I wake up and I hope you’re dead.” And, well, there’s really no way back after that. Their fight isn’t about catharsis. Neither of them seem to feel any better at the end of it. It’s really just about accepting that the farthest they will ever get together is a stalemate. Even though what comes next may feel slight, it’s the closest they can get to empathy for one another, after years without it:
Marriage Story ends, much as it begins, with a kindness. Charlie, who has spent so much of the divorce feeling adrift and cast aside, finally hears his ex-wife’s letter—the one she wrote but refused to read in the counselor’s office—when Henry finds it and reads it to him. Nicole watches the moment unfold, unnoticed, and seemingly glad that Charlie finally gets to hear the words she couldn’t say to his face—that she sees so many things in him worth loving, and always will. They both needed that.
The Barbers settle their custody dispute and settle into their new lives, and on some Halloween in the not-too-distant future, we see them trick-or-treating. As they get ready to part ways, Nicole deposits a worn-out Henry in Charlie’s arms and suggests that he take him home, even though it’s not his night. And then, noticing Charlie’s shoelace is untied, she bends down to knot it for him. Neither action is a part of a negotiation. They’re meant to make things just a little easier on him—something she used to do, until she couldn’t anymore. They both needed that, too.
I cannot, and would not, talk about the specifics that led to the dissolution of my own marriage. But I can see shadows of all the struggles that have come after in Charlie and Nicole’s story. It’s forgetting you can’t call each other pet names anymore, inside jokes with your in-laws that you can no longer tell, conversations about furniture and holidays that leave you exhausted. It’s slowly, slowly figuring out how to remain in the same orbit while you’re letting go of each other piece by piece. It’s how you loved each other, too.
Maybe there is no real end to a marriage. There is a point at which you both admit that your relationship is not what a marriage should be. There is a point at which one of you leaves the home you shared, and the other has to stay, and both options are equally terrible. There is a point at which you offer up intimate details of your lives and your finances to a legal authority and they pronounce you un-married. But even then, when it’s over over, the remnants of the relationship are still there, a fundamental part of who you are, even now, a thing that existed in you and between you and around you. The relationship will always be a part of you. That is Charlie and Nicole’s marriage story. That’s a lot of marriage stories.
That’s my marriage story, too.
The hardest thing about my headaches, besides the pain itself, has been finding a way to describe them. They’re not migraines or cluster headaches. There’s nothing in particular that seems to make them worse or better, and they aren’t focused in one particular area. They all just amount to a low, dull ache that never really goes away. The doctors say maybe it’s stress, and maybe it is—there’s certainly been enough of that lately. They ask where it hurts, and I just gesture vaguely at my head and feel a little bit helpless. I don’t know how to tell them where it hurts. It hurts everywhere.
There are too many things about the end of my marriage to quantify or rank in terms of difficulty. It’s all hard, in a way I am only beginning to understand how to describe. But as trite as it may seem, Marriage Story has given me a frame of reference to begin to try. It’s given me somewhere to point to. To say here—here, this is where it hurts.