My dad introduced me to movies. I would spend the weekend at his apartment almost every other week, and we had the same ritual each time: buy a huge bag of Doritos and a Pepsi for my dad, and pick out a movie from the Blockbuster down the street. He would let me pick one that we’d watch together and then choose a horror movie to watch once I had fallen asleep. If Noah Baumbach was directing a movie of our lives, these trips to my dad’s apartment would be in perfect vignette form, as they are in his 2019 film Marriage Story. As we transferred trains and trekked through the snow, there would be playful snippets of us reading books on the L and me falling into the Chicago snow, unbalanced by my huge purple backpack. Going to my dad’s house in the city was like a fun vacation, even if I sometimes forgot my hairbrush and had to try sorting through my hair with his rarely used comb, or if I had to constantly remind my dad that I needed real-people food—and eight year olds cannot survive on Doritos alone.
These collages of family life are abundant in Marriage Story, as Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie (Adam Driver) navigate divorce and parenthood in a touching love story that is truly Baumbach’s best work. However, what really struck me when watching Marriage Story was that it was a love story that I had never seen before, one that was like the one I’d seen in my parents. Throughout the film, Baumbach is never trying to convince audiences that these two people should be together. Neither does he blame either party. Instead, he looks at the complicated process of divorce and how it affects a family, and how that family can grow and change even when romantic love between parents is no longer involved.
My parents separated when I was two, and thank god they did. When I watched The Parent Trap, I couldn’t fathom why Lindsay Lohan was trying so hard to get her parents back together. Even at a young age, I knew that reuniting my parents would be a complete disaster for all of us. My father is a Second City comedian turned Chicago actor turned real estate agent, and my mom is a retired accountant. My dad would never dream of moving to the suburbs, and my mom is in love with every aspect of suburban life. Sixteen years post-divorce, they both have new spouses who make them happier than they could’ve ever made each other. However, Marriage Story isn’t set sixteen years post-divorce. It’s set within the messy court appearances, struggle with lawyers, and custody hearings.
The scene that was hardest for me to watch in the movie was a recess Charlie takes after a meeting with Nicole where he very clearly sees that he’s losing the case (unhelped by Alan Alda, who plays his hilarious, warm, but utterly incompetent lawyer). He breaks down crying and says that he just wants his son to know that he tried. That he fought for him. Up until this summer, I thought that this is how my parents’ divorce went. I saw my dad as a man like Charlie, a father who fought to have as present a role in his child’s life as possible. My dad has always been extremely emotionally available with me. He would often express that he wanted to be a better dad and that he wished he could be around more. So it just felt natural that this character was him. However, my dad wasn’t present at any of the custody hearings. I learned that this summer at a doctor appointment. My mother, who can be casual about difficult things in order to not drown in them, told the doctor that my father had been an alcoholic when she was asked if I had a history of mental illness in the family. She’d never told me, and something about finding the last piece in the complicated puzzle of my parents’ divorce didn’t surprise me at all. I’d known but I hadn’t known, because I had always been an observant child and had started to shape my perception of my parents as people outside of being my parents very early in my life.
Instead of surprise, I was upset I would never go back to the romantic, childish view of my parent’s divorce. The answer to so many of my questions hit me in the face that day, and I spent the whole summer rewriting my view of my father, who had been my hero when I was growing up. Now I love him for different reasons: because he recovered, because he is a great husband to his amazingly kind wife, and because he is now a wonderful father to my two year old sister. I realize that the hero of this story, if there is any, is my mother, who was never spiteful or angry and let my father be my hero for years. Even when she had to do all the hard things. Even when she was doing all the parenting and disciplining whilst my father took up absolutely none of that responsibility. Even when I thought my dad was the one who was there for me, when in reality he really didn’t try at all during my parents’ divorce. He couldn’t. When my mom signed the final divorce papers, my dad was supposed to babysit me and didn’t show up, so I was left with her coworker because I was too young to be brought into court. My mother carried that for years and never told me, and she never took out her anger or sadness on the view I had of my father. For this and for many other reasons, she is the best person I know.
I found comfort in Marriage Story because it felt like what I wished our story could have been. In the same way that I rewatch mostly bad (but occasionally good) romantic comedies to remind myself that not all relationships are destined to fail, Marriage Story felt like a less idyllic romantic comedy that was real and imperfect enough to cling onto the hope of how I had grown up believing divorce was, for the most part. My parents are enough like Nicole and Charlie that in those two hours, sitting in my seat with eyes glued to the screen, I could imagine that this is what really happened, as I’d thought it did up until only a few months ago. I could go back to the belief that my father had been there in the courtroom in a nice suit with a nice lawyer, trying his best. After realizing why I loved this movie so much, it was hard not to feel angry, as I do now as I struggle to sort through feelings about an event that’s been behind most everyone involved for the past sixteen years. Sometimes, I have more of a The Squid and the Whale perspective than a Marriage Story perspective on my parents’ divorce. Maybe I should’ve been realistic about it when I realized that Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson are not my parents, and we lived in Chicago, not between New York and Los Angeles. But movies can be deceiving when you’re trying to believe in something that you really want to believe in.
I’ve always enjoyed watching Noah Baubach’s movies because of the way that it feels like he’s also grappling with divorce, being an artist, and growing up. Depending on what I’m confused about, there always seems to be a Noah Baumbach movie that speaks to some aspect of what I’m feeling in the moment. Specifically in the vein of divorce, Marriage Story is a much more compassionate view of the subject than any of his other films, such as The Squid and the Whale, like I mentioned earlier, or The Meyerowitz Stories. Along with being extremely compassionate, Marriage Story is also endearingly funny, incredibly well written, and the visual storytelling is stunning.
At the end of the day, my dad did end up trying. Just as Charlie puts together an elaborate costume (the Invisible Man, which couldn’t have been a more hilarious outfit to put Adam Driver in) to trick-or-treat with his son on Halloween, the year I dressed up as a go-go girl my dad drove out to the suburbs in the most insane disco costume I have ever seen. I will make fun of him and his tasteless afro for years. This was a way that my dad knew how to try. When I was growing up, my dad and I did a lot of fun things together, because that’s what he thought being a parent was. At the center of that fun was movies and books, which have helped me through my worst moments. Now that he has a stable job, a wife, and the cutest two year old in the world, I like to tell people my dad and I grew up at the same time. Even though I sometimes wish that I didn’t have to grow up as his parent, I also know I wouldn’t be the same person without having to be a very strange, very old eight year old.
When I used to ask my parents about their divorce, it was never an interesting enough conversation to pursue. This may seem flippant, but they always had the same answers, and I believed them. They just weren’t meant to be together. Now I know that it was more complicated than that, but at the end of the day, what they were saying is also true. They got married right out of college, had me, and realized they couldn’t be married people anymore. Just like how people say a big part of growing up is realizing that your parents are people, I grew up realizing that my parents are people who are deeply not meant to be together. My favorite thing about Marriage Story is that it focuses on Nicole and Charlie as individuals and parents before it focuses on them as a married couple. In a scene that’s been widely lauded by critics, Charlie and Nicole come head to head in a heated and emotional argument as they come to their personal breaking points amidst the divorce circus. They’re so angry, so hurt, so clearly not meant to be together. However, as the narrative progresses, Charlie and Nicole soften towards each other. They grow as individuals and you see them make compromises in their lives in order to be a new kind of family for their shared child. While their divorce starts at the center of the film, at the end, what matters most is being the best parents they can be for Henry. This is how my parents have always been. I didn’t learn about the truth behind their divorce until I was eighteen, and probably for the best. Even though it can feel painful and recent, it also isn’t really relevant information anymore.
This is why, at midnight in the Francesca Beale Theater, I was still wide awake as the end of Marriage Story played. Through tear-filled eyes I watched as Nicole picks up her son, asleep after a long day of trick-or-treating and carries him over to Charlie. As they pass him off, the two hug with their child between them. I wish I could’ve paused the movie right at that moment and just stared at that picture. Despite all of the pain and anger we watch throughout the movie, at the end of the day, there’s so much love that comes with raising a child, even if it takes unconventional forms. It also represents how Henry is the only thing holding these two people together, as many children are. I know that this isn’t the story of all children with parents of divorce, but it feels like mine, and I know I’m lucky that it does. My dad has come a long way, or at least as far as he can, and my mom feels like it happened a lifetime ago. This year I celebrated Thanksgiving with my whole family, the first holiday I have celebrated with everyone together. It is moments like this that make me love and feel grateful for how my families can come together, and moments like these that make me not care about how we got to where we are today. It is not a Noah Baumbach movie—it is better.