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Divorce in Film, Part 1: What does “Marriage Story” show us?

This is the first post in a series called “Divorce in Film” in which we break down some of the best depictions of divorce in highly-acclaimed cinema. Stay tuned to our blog for more posts like this one.

Netflix’s recent blockbuster film Marriage Story received acclaim from critics and fans alike for its heart-wrenching portrayal of a marriage at its endpoint of decay. Adam Driver’s character, Charlie, and his wife, Nicole (played by Scarlett Johanssen), are parents to a son named Henry, and each of them wants what’s best for him. However, the parents are certain they are at the end of their relationship, even though they want to end it amicably.

This is a familiar situation for many couples who are approaching divorce —  just because a relationship is coming to an end doesn’t mean that the differences create a pool of bad blood to the point that the separation cannot be worked out amicably. Still, divorce is a heavy burden to bear for any couple, and many couples hoping to split on good terms end up at each other’s throats in the way that Charlie and Nicole do in the movie — each partner “lawyers-up” and “digs in” for a battle over where their children should live.

One reason that we loved Marriage Story was for its generally accurate portrayal of this whole process. So, let’s break down a few of the important points the film tells us about divorce law.


In the opening scenes of the film, Charlie and Nicole narrate their takes on everything they love about the other person. After they have finished reading their favorite characteristics and habits of their partners, we are shown that these words are contained in letters they’ve brought to a meeting with a mediator. The scene edges a bit towards therapy, which is what mediation can feel like.

Mediation is a type of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR), or method of resolving legal matters without expensive litigation or a time-consuming and emotionally taxing trial. Mediation can be used to resolve all matters related to divorce, including division of property, child custody, parenting time and alimony arrangements.

Apportionment of Responsibility

Unfortunately, Nicole decides she isn’t ready to read her letter and the pair don’t follow through with the mediation process. Later, she meets Nora, a strong-nosed lawyer who Nicole ends up hiring for the divorce process. After being served with the divorce papers, Charlie seeks out a lawyer of his own and ends up finding a kind-hearted attorney named Bert. Charlie, who was already discouraged from his struggles during his search for a lawyer due to high retainer prices and unavailability thanks to prior consultations with Nicole, Bert informs Charlie that he will also need to pay a portion of Nicole’s legal fees. Charlie responds with an exasperated “What?!”

This is a tough instance to define, because many different factors affect the apportionment of responsibility for each party’s attorney fees during a divorce. In New Jersey, a spouse would typically request Pendente Lite Support from the court. This court-ordered support is generally temporary and based off of each spouse’s income and expenses, and is meant to help maintain the status quo during the divorce. While this may seem unfair in some situations, this kind of support is designed to help give both parties an opportunity to participate in the divorce process equally, and it is usually ordered or denied with strong reasoning from the courts.

Child Custody with Relocation (from a New Jersey Perspective)

One of the biggest sticking points for Charlie and Nicole’s divorce is that Nicole has taken their son Henry and moved to her mother’s home in Los Angeles, California, and away from her home with Charlie in New York. She then serves Charlie divorce papers in California. Nicole was originally from California and Henry was also born there. So, when Nicole brings Henry with her to L.A. to live and attend school there, it leaves Charlie — who desperately wants to stay in New York and expected Nicole to return there after a few months — in a very tough situation in terms of child custody.

In New Jersey, the parent of a child born in the state (or that has lived in the state for at least five years) must get permission from the other parent or the courts to move the child out of  state. Though Charlie never gave explicit permission for Nicole to take Henry permanently out of the state, she had a strong argument for Henry remaining in her physical custody — Henry was born in California, he had a home in California with his mother, he enjoyed school there, and by all accounts with the expert evaluators, he alleged he was happiest there.

These are just a few examples of how Noah Baumbach’s film Marriage Story provides an interesting, accurate depiction of divorce. If you’re interested in more of Charlie and Nicole’s story, including how it ends, we highly recommend watching it on Netflix.

If you’re feeling like Charlie or Nicole, and you’re approaching a divorce, get in touch with our legal team. We are highly-experienced, compassionate, flexible attorneys with a history of positive working relationships with individuals navigating divorce, alimony, child support, domestic violence and more.

Thank you for reading this first post in a series of blogs about Divorce in Film. Stay tuned for future posts breaking down other highly-acclaimed films and their depictions of divorce.