Untangling The Complex Emotions Of “Marriage Story”

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A personal dissection of marriage, divorce, and the impact of emotionally charged art.

(Note: the following contains mild spoilers for “Marriage Story”)

I rarely talk about how my parents getting divorced affected me. Since the day they sat me down and told me they no longer loved each other about five years ago—it really does feel longer than that—I never really took the time to think about any direct implications, no therapists or anything. Instead I mainly just focused on the perceived positives of the situation, at least the ones that mattered to a sophomore in high school. I otherwise went about my life as I had before, only pausing to switch houses every other week or so. It was never the thing that was at the forefront of my mind, and when I graduated and moved to start college it became even less of a concern. Of course there are times their separation does still impact me, namely when it comes to navigating holidays, but otherwise my thoughts on it rarely go beyond acknowledging that it exists.  

So after finishing Marriage Story, the latest co-production between Netflix and director Noah Baumbach, and finding myself not just in tears but completely bawling into my blanket, I realized it would be practically impossible for me to write a completely objective account of my thoughts on the film. In a way I almost feel like Anton Ego at the end of Ratatouille, completely unable to set aside my emotions to provide any kind of serious critical analysis, at least not after just one viewing. I can definitively say that Marriage Story is my favorite film of 2019 for a number of reasons, some based on the technical accomplishments, but everything else is more of an incredibly personal gut feeling. As a result, I feel that the only way to accurately communicate my feelings is to connect it back to the personal events in my life the film reminded me of. This article is less an attempt to convince someone to go watch the film and more of one to unpack the very specific way it impacted me, and in a larger sense why certain art hits each person differently and may even help gain some sense of closure over certain events in their life.

Marriage Story depicts a similar situation to many of my friends growing up, as parents Nicole Barber (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie Barber (Adam Driver) are beginning the process of their separation with their son Henry still being too young to fully grasp the full ramifications of what his parents not being together anymore really means. As a result, the majority of the film is centered around negotiations surrounding what would be best for Henry, even while seemingly selfless sacrifices become much more personal and aggravated with the introduction of lawyers and inflating tensions between the couple. The centerpiece of the film is a massive argument where all pretenses of civility are broken down to reveal the root of the issues the couple have only alluded to up to this point, most of which in reality have nothing to do with Henry. Often, kids in the middle of a divorce have the thought that somehow the whole thing is their fault, and the film highlights not just that this is not true, but that even the parents may not fully grasp where their feelings are coming from. This scene is not just the best showcase for the phenomenal performances given by the two leads, but also the first instance where I felt the resurgence of feelings I never really considered when my parents were in the same place.

My parents never had many fights or arguments that I remember, which made their announcement of divorce come seemingly out of nowhere to me. Of course, looking back, I can identify certain cracks that I may not have otherwise paid attention to, specifically one event that even at the time seemed out of place for them. But while the process of their separation was nowhere as convoluted as that portrayed in Marriage Story, the emotion was still there, and it clearly put a strain on them while figuring everything out. My mom was a little more distant for a while, my dad a little more on edge. And through that process I began struggling more as well, although it took until basically this year to connect it to the divorce. Even when it goes as smoothly as humanly possible it is still a horrible experience for everyone involved.

Which brings me to the final scene of Marriage Story and why it took me nearly an entire day to fully collect myself. It all traces back to one simple moment: a year after their divorce is finalized Nicole and Charlie are trick-or-treating with Henry, and Charlie is about to go home when Nicole notices that his shoe is untied and instinctively leans down to tie it. That simple act is what really made the whole weight of the film hit me, as it perfectly reflected what day-to-day life is like for everyone involved with a divorce. Despite the fact that the people who raised you together no longer want to live together, it can still feel like little has actually changed once enough time has passed. I still woke up every morning and went to school, came home, ate dinner, and went to sleep, just as I do now living outside of their house. But the quiet normalcy can also be dangerous, as it was for me, where it becomes too easy to ignore thinking about what the actual answer to “Are you doing ok?” is, potentially leading to self-destructive behavior that may not manifest itself until years later.

This is why I value films like Marriage Story so much; art is meant to be a personal expression of the artist creating it, operating strongest when it provokes a similar reaction from those consuming it as those creating it. For many people, the film certainly works and has garnered a much deserved positive critical reaction, but for me, as someone who has recently seen what going through a divorce is like, it hit in a way that it may not have otherwise. My favorite films tend to be the ones that I connect with on a deeper level than just the thematic surface, that speak to some part of the human condition in a way that feels personally tailored to my own life. It was true about my favorite film from last year Eighth Grade, and the same can be said about Marriage Story. Feeling emotions when viewing art is perfectly natural, and in many cases is a sign that something about that specific art goes beyond simple entertainment. Only by not ignoring those emotions or saying they are somehow a bad thing, but instead embracing them and maybe even learning from them, can the true impact of this kind of art be felt in a transformative, meaningful, and potentially cathartic way.

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