A Marriage Story was released by Netflix and hit their streaming service in December 2019. It highlights several family law issues that we as family law attorneys commonly see in our work; divorce, custody, relocation, and of course, high emotions. This movie was recently in the spotlight again during award season with six Golden Globe and Oscar nominations and Laura Dern’s Best Supporting Actress victory for her role as a very stylish and very friendly (to her clients) attorney. Around the country, there has been a lot of buzz among family law attorneys about this movie. The reviews are mixed as many of us had a hard time ignoring the glaring jurisdictional issue and just enjoy the movie, while some of us loved having a “voice” in Laura Dern’s character and others felt such empathy for the story that it was too painful to watch. While originally resistant to seeing this movie, feeling that since I do this for a living I really didn’t want to spend my family time in the divorce world, I too eventually jumped on the bandwagon after encouragement from so many of my colleagues.
For those of you who have not had the chance to see this movie, I will give you a brief overview. An artistic couple living in New York finds their marriage at an end. The husband, Adam Driver, has been intimate with a coworker and the wife, Scarlett Johansson, feels held back by their relationship. Johansson’s character is from Los Angles and “temporarily” relocates with their son back to LA. Driver begins to realize this may not be temporary and tumultuous conflict over custody begins. A couple who had hoped to amicably sort out the end of their marriage enters into a world of conflict and hard to understand legal practices.
I would love to tell you that the heart-wrenching spectacle that is A Marriage Story is far from reality, but I am afraid that would not be honest. I watched this movie with my family, and we all shed a tear or two. There is something about two parents trying their best to do right by themselves and their child to which many of us can relate. Two scenes in particular resonated with me the most. The first is when Johansson has her initial consultation with Dern. As Johansson shares her “marriage story” she is in disbelief that her life has unfolded in this way. Dern kicks off her shoes and curls up on the couch next to her, offering a cup of tea as if its girl’s night and they are dishing about life. In my experience, this type of intimate contact with your lawyer is fairly unusual. Many of us go out of our way to make our clients feel comfortable during a meeting that no one ever wishes they were having, but I have no recollection of ever having the desire to shed my shoes during a consult. Lawyers can seem desensitized given we see such trauma every day; however, as Dern portrays, each story really is unique. Family law attorneys become intimately involved in our clients’ lives during a time they hoped they would never experience. This scene was a great reminder to me and to my colleagues that maybe we do need to figuratively kick off our heels and remind our clients that they are not alone.
The second tear-jerking scene that stuck with me was the climactic fight between Johansson and Driver. This fight contained every passionate, rage-filled line I had heard and then some. Johansson at one-point screaming, “the thought of having sex with you makes me want to peel my skin off”, with Driver responding, “I’d hoped you’d get an illness, and get hit by a car and die”. The scene ends with them holding each other crying and apologizing. The truth is it is hard to passionately love someone and passionately hate someone at the same. The tricky thing about divorce is at one point you chose to couple with this person, to share your hopes and dreams and to build a life together. It can seem incomprehensible that you are now choosing to uncouple. The movie provides a raw and honest portrayal of the complex web of emotions that accompany divorce. I encouraged my office team who have not been divorced to view this scene with an eye toward what our clients are experiencing during this process.
Overall, if you have not had the chance to see this movie, I would highly recommend it. Of course, it is fictionalized drama, but it may help you through your divorce or help you be a better friend to someone going through a divorce. There are points throughout A Marriage Story that serve as a reminder to people they are not alone in their struggles. Unfortunately, sometimes part of a marriage’s story is divorce. However, the closing scene showed that very often divorce is not a simple end to that story. Hopefully, you find an advocate that fits your needs to walk the journey with you.