The Lost Daughter
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Adapted from an Elena Ferrante novel, The Lost Daughter is the story of Leda–a middle aged woman with a mysterious past. While away on vacation, a series of awkward encounters with a family visiting the same island brings back Leda’s memories of mothering her young children twenty years prior.
The film stars Oscar winning actress Olivia Colman (The Favourite, The Crown), Dakota Johnson (Fifty Shades of Grey), Oscar nominee Ed Harris (The Truman Show), Peter Sarsgaard (An Education), Dagmara Dominczyk (Succession), Jessie Buckley (Chernobyl), and Paul Mescal (Normal People). The Lost Daughter was written and directed by Oscar nominated actress Maggie Gyllenhaal.
Being a mother is as rewarding as it is relentless, but the messiness of motherhood is a cultural taboo. Even more off limits is the subject of ambition and motherhood, because society tells us that a mother is meant to be so fulfilled by a child that she shouldn’t need anything more from life. In The Lost Daughter, Gyllenhaal unapologetically confronts these two taboos head-on. The psychological drama, which marks Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut, is an honest portrait of the tension between personal and career fulfillment and responsibility for the nurturance of children.
The film begins with Leda (Colman), a professor of British literature, driving to a rented villa on the Greek island of Spetses. She’s there for what seems to be a much-needed getaway, but her idyllic, solo, summer vacation comes to an abrupt halt when a loud, large American family from Queens takes over the small beach that Leda has had to herself until their arrival. A mother of two adult children, Leda spends a few days observing the American family covertly from her lounge chair. She’s particularly drawn to a young mother named Nina (Johnson) who is clearly overwhelmed with motherhood. Nina reminds Leda of her younger self, played exquisitely in flashbacks by Buckley. As a twenty-something parent Leda struggled to raise her two young girls while also trying to hold on to her intellectual curiosities and fledgling career.
The 48-year-old Leda sees herself in Nina and the two eventually befriend one another. Leda understands what nobody in Nina’s family, including her husband, can see: that she is depressed and exhausted by motherhood. Particularly blind to Nina is her pregnant sister-in-law, Callie (Dominczyk), who can’t fathom the idea that being a mother is not always rosy.
“Children are a crushing responsibility,” Leda informs Callie.
Gyllenhaal’s rendering of Ferrante’s eponymous novel is simultaneously heartbreaking, mysterious, relatable, and nerve wracking. The film is uncomfortable and offers no real answers, which makes it refreshing. She originally wanted to shoot the story—which was set in Italy in the novel—in a New Jersey beach community, but as the pandemic escalated that proved impossible. She thought of Rhode Island and Nova Scotia, but ultimately decided on Greece, a place where Gyllenhaall said that she could be as much of an outsider as Leda is on the island.
Casting director Kathleen Crawford deserves an award for putting together an exemplary ensemble of actors. Each of them takes a character who is not necessarily likable and makes them relatable. Colman in particular, who also served as the film’s executive producer, gives a subtle yet riveting performance. Leda is self-possessed yet full of guilt, which Colman conveys brilliantly with her eyes. Her facial expressions convey her silent desires throughout the film.
The Lost Daughter has a few flaws. Leda’s dizzy spells and desire to steal as well as the ending may be confusing for some viewers. But overall, The Lost Daughter provides all parents–men and women alike–a chance to examine the myths of motherhood.
The Lost Daughter proves that Gyllenhaal has a gift for directing and screenwriting. She’s made a film about real, complex people that sticks with you. It will make you ponder the notion that a mother can love, appreciate, and adore her children and yet want something more from life.
This is not a kid-friendly movie (due to the subject matter, language, and slow pace), but it’s a compelling film for adults. While your female friends may be most likely to relate, it’s also a good film for men to see and hear.
The film has already garnered an array of trophies, including four Gotham Awards for best feature, best screenplay, outstanding lead performance and breakthrough director. Gyllenhaal and Colman both received Golden Globe nominations for directing and best actress respectively. Oscar nominations seem inevitable.