Emotional performances that explore three very different kinds of relationships.

Who Should Win: Scarlett Johansson – Marriage Story

Noah Baumbach’s second film for Netflix, Marriage Story, is a moving story about the end of a marriage. After Nicole (Scarlett Johansson) and Charlie’s (Adam Driver) relationship disintegrates, Nicole files for divorce. While the separation begins amicably, the couple are soon locked in a passionate, ugly custody battle involving Nicole’s family and multiple teams of aggressive lawyers. Surprisingly, Marriage Story never abandons realism in favour of over-exaggeration. Though their fights on and off-screen can get heated, Nicole and Charlie stay true to their goal of an amicable separation, remembering that there was a time when each loved the other more than they could ever express.

At the heart of Marriage Story is a career-defining performance by Johansson. Nicole is a tour-de-force brimming with raw emotion and undeniable sensibility. In one scene, Nicole sardonically brushes off Charlie’s suggestion of two Halloween trips for their son without getting visibly angry. Another sees her flatly accept an acting critique from her director husband, before breaking into tears a moment later once she’s out of sight. In the inevitable argument scene, she breaks down Charlie while remaining mostly level-headed. Johansson layers a full range of emotions convincingly without overindulging in any.

Johansson’s performance is truly incredible, but her character also necessitates it. Nicole comes from an acting family but gave up a chance at a Hollywood career to work in theatre with Charlie, a highly regarded experimental theatre director. An extremely talented actor, Nicole acts as a draw for Charlie’s shows, but feels unfulfilled and subservient to her husband. At several points in the film, Nicole expresses that Charlie never saw her as more than an extension of himself, and that she had begun to think the same way. Her actions, goals, and even her tastes were defined more by Charlie than herself.
Johansson plays more than a woman breaking away from a partner she no longer loves. Nicole is a woman who has missed out on life trying to find herself.

Marriage Story is a fantastic film on many levels, but the real standouts are its lead actors. As Nicole, Johansson not only delivers her best performance this year, but by far the best performance of any actress this year.

Who Got Snubbed: Noémie Merlant – Portrait of a Lady on Fire

Despite being passed over for Best International Feature, Portrait of a Lady on Fire has been recognized by several critics as one of the best films of the year and was even thought to have a shot at a technical Oscar. Unfortunately, the Academy mostly passed over this story of a queer relationship in post-revolution France, and in doing so missed one of the year’s best performances.

In Portrait, Noémie Merlant plays Marianne, a painter tasked with creating the portrait of a woman about to be married against her will. The trouble with this is that Héloïse, the bride-to-be, refuses to pose, and therefore must be painted in secret. Over the course of the film, Marianne not only paints Héloïse without her knowledge, but additionally manages to gain her trust and paint Héloïse with her knowledge, before the two ultimately part ways following the most meaningful relationship either character will ever experience.

Merlant’s performance as Marianne is extremely reserved. For the first half of the film, her demeanor is cold, and her temperament pensive, with much of her dialogue limited to short, decisive answers to basic questions. In several scenes, little more than “oui” or “non” is spoken by Marianne, as she navigates her way among the unwilling French nobility. However, even in these tiny moments, Merlant conveys a deep well of emotion: in one scene, Marianne’s “oui” exudes confidence and knowledge of her artistic skill; in another, a pained “oui” makes the artist vulnerable, as she hears criticism from her most trusted confidant.

Portrait takes place over barely more than two weeks, but the relationship between Marianne and Héloïse seems as realistic and deep as in movies about longstanding couples. Portrait won the Queer Palm at Cannes, and it was the clearest choice. Though it’s a shame the film got no attention at this year’s Oscars, the most unfortunate part is that its lead actresses were entirely passed over.

…And Who Got Robbed: Awkwafina – The Farewell

The Farewell tells the touching story of an extended family getting back together in China to spend one final week with Nai Nai (grandma) after her cancer diagnosis. Except, that’s not quite the story, as the family does not believe it in Nai Nai’s best interest to actually inform her of her diagnosis; instead, they stage the fake wedding of her grandson, so the occasion can be more joyous. Somehow, all characters involved sign off on this strange proposition, except for Nai Nai’s granddaughter Billi (Awkwafina).

Hot off the success of last year’s smash hit Crazy Rich Asians, The Farewell sees Awkwafina in her first of hopefully many starring roles. As Billi, Awkwafina is vibrant and excitable, while retaining the solemnity the story requires.
Initially, Billi is left in the dark about Nai Nai’s illness. This is because she is very close with her grandmother, and her family does not trust her to keep the diagnosis a secret. When she learns of the diagnosis, Billi attends the family gathering anyway, and much of the film’s tension comes from the possibility that Billi might be the first to break and inform Nai Nai of the true nature of the family gathering.

The entire film is a blissful endeavor undercut by the spectre of death. And while all the film’s actors work in this environment, none do it so masterfully as Awkwafina. In her time with her grandmother, Billi buzzes with youthful energy, eagerly following Nai Nai’s tai chi cues. When leaving her grandmother for any reason, Billi’s mood is cheerful, and yet undermined by the knowledge that any farewell could be the last. Interacting with other actors, Awkwafina portrays conflicts with minimal dialogue, in which the things that are said are less important than those that aren’t.

At the heart of The Farewell is the conflict between traditionalism and western civilization in the 21st century. Billi embodies this conflict perfectly, and Awkwafina seems born for the role. Though she has only been in film and television for a little more than five years, Awkwafina could easily hold her own against such stiff veteran competition as Charlize Theron, Saoirse Ronan, and perhaps even Scarlett Johansson.
After winning a Golden Globe for her performance, Awkwafina was thought to be lock for an Oscar nomination at least. Unfortunately, the Academy doesn’t seem to have seen The Farewell.

Other Notable Snubs: Florence Pugh, Midsommar; Beanie Feldstein, Booksmart; Octavia Spencer, Luce