The Toronto International Film Festival traditionally serves as a significant launching pad for eventual Oscar winners. It played host to screenings of films like 12 Years a Slave, The Shape of Water, and Moonlight in the past, and the buzz from those screenings carried over into the Oscar race in a big way. So it’s with a not-insignificant degree of certainty that I can say Noah Baumbach’s major, devastating divorce drama Marriage Story—which played like gangbusters at TIFF this year—is a serious Oscar contender in all major categories.
Marriage Story stars Adam Driver as Charlie, a semi-successful New York-based theater director, and Scarlett Johnasson as Nicole, a former film actress who now mostly stars in Charlie’s plays. At the onset of Marriage Story, Charlie and Nicole are separating with the intention of divorcing, and the entire film tracks the process of their divorce. The proceedings are further complicated by Nicole landing a starring role in a new pilot in Los Angeles, and wishing to move there with their son.
Put simply, Marriage Story is one of the best and most accurate portrayals of divorce ever made, and it marks Baumbach’s most mature work to date. While the filmmaker found previous success in movies like The Squid and the Whale and Frances Ha, Marriage Story is in another league all together. It’s downright masterful, and it’s the best movie he’s made so far.
The most obvious nomination here is Driver for Best Actor, delivering the best performance of his career so far. Charlie is devastating, contradicting, loving, and tempestuous, and Driver shades the character beautifully throughout. He gets the big “Oscar scene” to be sure (technically like three of them, to be honest), but it’s the slight glances or hints at emotion within that stay with you for days after you’ve seen the movie. It’s a haunting performance in the best way.
Johansson, similarly, is stunning as Nicole, and while this is absolutely a co-lead film, the story follows Charlie’s POV slightly more often than Nicole’s. She, too, gets the big “Oscar scene,” and the couple have a 10-minute argument in the middle of the movie that’s more dynamic, exciting, and emotional than most blockbuster action set pieces. It quite literally left me shaken, and will surely leave a lasting impact on audiences and, yes, Academy voters. I think she is a very solid bet for a Best Actress nomination.
Even beyond Driver and Johansson, I would not at all be shocked to see Laura Dern score a Best Supporting Actress nomination for her stirring turn as Nicole’s fierce divorce attorney (who, yes, gets her “Oscar scene”). And take your pick between Ray Liotta and Alan Alda for a Supporting Actor nomination as Charlie’s divorce attorneys.
But Marriage Story isn’t just one of those performance-driven films that’s bolstered by its leading actors. It’s a beautifully constructed film, period, and one that lingers in your mind long after the credits have rolled. Baumbach seems a lock to be in the midst of the Best Director and Best Original Screenplay conversations. His gentle, confident direction doesn’t get in the way of the performances, but also keeps the audience locked into the POVs of the central characters. The way the film frames up the faces of Driver and Johansson, capturing every nuanced glance and hint at inner emotion, is tremendous. And Baumbach’s grounded script refrains from delving into melodrama while still accurately portraying the range of emotions that are emitted through a difficult divorce proceeding.
Best Picture? You betcha. The film got off to a rousing start following its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival and was subsequently bolstered by wildly positive TIFF reactions. It’s destined to be a favorite throughout awards season, as it’s a performance-driven film that actors will love, but also a tremendously well constructed dramatic piece from a well-liked auteur. There’s also the divorce aspect, as sadly many will find a lot to connect to within Marriage Story. What makes the film truly great, however, is how Baumbach, Driver, and Johansson never lose sight of the love that brought Charlie and Nicole together in the first place. That’s also what turns you into a puddle of tears by the film’s end.
As for the Netflix of it all, yes, this is a Netflix original film. The streamer still hasn’t won a top prize but last year’s performance of Roma—which won the Best Director prize—showed Academy voters don’t really have a significant bias against Netflix. And with the streaming service launching various Oscar bids this season from some of the most prestigious directors in history (like one Martin Scorsese), I think it’s probably time to put away the “Netflix movies will never win Best Picture” arguments. At this rate, it’s only a matter of time.
So yeah, Marriage Story is a major work, and will be a consistent presence on the circuit this season. Will it go all the way in the top category? Too early to say, but it’s not just a contender for nominations in various major categories, it feels like a serious threat to win at least one. Driver’s time may have finally come.
Marriage Story will be released in select theaters on November 6th and hits Netflix on December 6th. See it in a dark, crowded theater if you can.