Indie Focus: A ballad of love and divorce in ‘Marriage Story’

Hello! I’m Mark Olsen. Welcome to another edition of your regular field guide to a world of Only Good Movies.

The American Cinematheque will be launching a tribute to often unheralded journeyman filmmaker Philip Kaufman. The series will include “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” on which Kaufman shared story credit with George Lucas, along with Kaufman’s own films “The Wanderers,” “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” and “The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid.”

Kaufman and actress Juliette Binoche will appear for a screening of “The Unbearable Lightness of Being.” Kaufman is also scheduled to attend a screening of “The Right Stuff” at the American Legion Hollywood Post 43 Theater on Monday for Veterans Day.

The L.A. Times will be hosting a roundtable conversation on costume design at the Paley Center for Media on Sunday. The talk will be moderated by deputy managing editor Julia Turner, with scheduled guests Ruth E. Carter for “Dolemite Is My Name,” Julian Day for “Rocketman,” Arianne Phillips for “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” Sandy Powell for “The Irishman,” Paul Tazewell for “Harriet” and Jany Temime for “Judy.” For more information, go to


And on Thursday, we’ll have a screening of the new film “Hala,” starring Geraldine Viswanathan, followed by a Q&A with writer-director Minhal Baig. You’ll be able to RSVP soon, so for more information, also visit

Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver in the movie "Marriage Story."
(Wilson Webb/Netflix)

‘Marriage Story’

Written and directed by Noah Baumbach, “Marriage Story” has become one of the most heralded films of the year as it made a remarkable run through festivals in Venice, Telluride, Toronto and New York. The story of a couple (Scarlett Johansson and Adam Driver) navigating their way through a painful and bitter divorce and custody battle, the film is also an ultimately hopeful and clear-eyed look at love, relationships, self-understanding and acceptance.


Reviewing for The Times, Justin Chang wrote, “Of course it’s about the end of a relationship, and Baumbach, a peerless observer of domestic pettiness and passive-aggressive behavior, puts every unflattering detail under his dramatic microscope … But it is also something else: not just one of the best-acted movies you’ll see this year but also one of the year’s best movies about acting. This should come as little surprise. From ‘Margot at the Wedding’ to ‘The Meyerowitz Stories,’ Baumbach has long been interested in the lives of privileged, cultured individuals with a tendency to self-dramatize. And if every marriage requires an element of pretense, then divorce may demand an all-out charade, especially if both parties are committed to the appearance of a smooth, amicable uncoupling.”

For the New York Times, A.O. Scott added, “What is happening is catastrophic, ridiculous and also — as the lawyers know — perfectly ordinary. Baumbach, exploiting and extending the tremendous talents of his cast, refuses to exaggerate. There are spasms of farce and throbs of melodrama, but they arise within the rhythms of everyday behavior… They are large, complicated personalities with professional and emotional lives that fill their days, and the screen, with anxiety, surprise and occasional delight.”

At Slate, Dana Stevens wrote that “Johansson and Driver are superb performers, attentive, generous, versatile, and able to register minute shifts of feeling and understanding on their admittedly well-proportioned features. They don’t need special effects or high-concept premises to work their spell on an audience; they can take a pause at the door of a room or a glance exchanged over the back of a sleeping child and make them into moments recognizable to anyone who’s hesitated at the threshold of a no longer viable life, still unsure how to move on to what’s next.”

For Time, Stephanie Zacharek wrote, “As a filmmaker, Baumbach’s smartest move here is that he never explains exactly how or what went wrong between these two, people whose sine waves seem as in sync as a pair of dolphins swimming in the sea. No one outside a marriage can know the truth of it; that’s a secret meant only for those inside. If you think you can squeeze a camera in there, you’re an endoscopic surgeon, not a filmmaker — and Baumbach would be the first to tell you he’s just the latter.”


‘Honey Boy’

In describing “Honey Boy,” the fiction feature debut from director Alma Har’el, it’s easy to make the film sound more ridiculous than the heartfelt, emotional and deeply felt work that it is. Shia LaBeouf wrote the screenplay based on his experiences as a young actor and in the film plays a part based on his own father. Noah Jupe appears as a child star named Otis, a character also played by Lucas Hedges as an adult grappling with the traumas of his past.

In a review for The Times, Jen Yamato wrote, “For LaBeouf, ‘Honey Boy’ may well be an act of catharsis, understanding and accountability; whether or not it truly serves those roles, only he will know. And should it matter to the rest of us? In Har’el’s hands that vision becomes at once confessional and curative, much bigger than one actor, one man or one boy’s story alone.”


I sat down with LaBeouf, Har’el, Jupe and Hedges during the Toronto International Film Festival for a story that will be publishing soon, and Ha’rel talked about the film’s relationship to LaBeouf’s own life. “I was really aware that the film has to exist on a different level when it comes to the archetype of the son and father that goes beyond Shia’s bio,” she said. “And it was really important for all of us, to kind of communicate with that and not ignore it, make sure that’s not the center but also that you can kind of wink at it sometimes. And we would really look at things as references and decide what to celebrate and what to laugh about and what to ignore.”

For Vulture, Alison Willmore wrote, “LaBeouf’s approach to the character is marked by a radical empathy, even when depicting a memory of physical abuse — he portrays his father as someone so consumed by his own pain that he can barely interact with the world around him, much less put his own impulses aside to care for his son the way a parent should. It’s a remarkable performance, and one that Jupe is impressively able to hold his own against, even when tasked at times to just quietly observe.”

For the AP, Lindsey Bahr wrote, “In the broadest sense, it’s a portrait of a boy whose father doesn’t, or can’t, love him the way he needs. But broad isn’t the point. The salacious tabloid sell is that LaBeouf wrote this script about his life while in rehab. It was therapy, but besides the location, it’s not terribly unique that a storyteller might get some personal catharsis. What separates ‘Honey Boy’ from the standard confessional is the heart, precision and artfulness that LaBeouf and director Alma Har’el employ to tell this story.”

Imelda Marcos in the movie "The Kingmaker."
(Lauren Greenfield)

‘The Kingmaker’

Documentary filmmaker Lauren Greenfield has long been a keen chronicler of lives touched by extreme wealth. Which is what makes Imelda Marcos, notorious former first lady of the Philippines, seem such a natural subject for her new film, “The Kingmaker.” But Greenfield also transforms the movie into a look at contemporary political power in action as Marcos is in the midst of attempting to bring her family back to power.

In a review for The Times, Justin Chang wrote that “Greenfield’s most forceful interviews are not with Marcos, with her self-pitying laments and dubious recollections. Wisely, she interviews a number of activists who recount their experiences of being rounded up and tortured during the martial law years. Their testimonies are vivid, horrifying, galvanizing in their detail and lucidity. ‘The Kingmaker’ may end on a queasy note of alarm about the Philippines’ future, but it also reminds us that we neglect the past at our peril.”

Amy Kaufman spoke to Greenfield about the movie. Though the filmmaker has previously explored the lives of wealthy people, she said of Marcos, “This wasn’t a wealth story like anything I’ve done before. It wasn’t wealth for materialism or showing off — it was wealth for power and admiration. She loves the people loving her.”


I also talked to Greenfield for our entertainment podcast “The Reel,” where she spoke on how the movie’s focus shifted as she saw that Marcos was trying to reassert herself into national politics in the Philippines. “I realized there was a much bigger, more relevant, more timely story about the rise to power of this family,” Greenfield said. “They were kicked out in 1986. How did they get back? It was almost like if we could imagine President Nixon coming back and winning an election. And so that really changed the story for me.”

Reviewing the movie for the New York Times, Manohla Dargis wrote, “As Greenfield opens ‘The Kingmaker’ up, the Philippines’ past and present move uneasily into alignment, and the movie becomes more interesting and far more disturbing. Notably, it also becomes less about one woman, her malevolent charms and quirks, and develops into an unsettling look at imperial power … When she interviews an old friend of the Marcoses who chortles about American support for despots, the movie — like his comment — becomes the tragedy it was meant to be.”

Email me if you have questions, comments or suggestions, and follow me on Twitter: @IndieFocus.