There’s always a moment when we stop seeing our parents as superheroes and learn they’re human beings just as fragile as us. The ones who taught us right from wrong and can heal any hurt with a hug are also prone to selfishness, hopelessness, and plain-old mean-spirited behavior. You can never predict when it happens, how it happens, or how to deal with it. What you can do is start tracing back your childhood memories to look for clues. You might ask, “How long have those feelings been there?” “Did I do something to make them worse?” “Do those feelings ever go away, even when I become a parent?” There may not be a definitive way to ease those feelings, but one thing’s for sure. Running away from them will only make it all worse.
The two parents at the heart of The Lost Daughter—Maggie Gyllenhaal’s heartbreaking adaptation of the 2006 novel—are mothers. The first is Leda (Olivia Colman), a Cambridge linguistics professor enjoying her vacation in a small coastal Italian village. She runs into a friendly young bartender (Paul Mescal), a leering elderly neighbor (Ed Harris), and an abrasive family that overtakes the quiet beach Leda relaxes on with skeevy patriarchs, loud children, and their mothers all flailing their hands in frustration at everything around them.
Leda takes note of the movie’s second mother, Nina (Dakota Johnson), who looks more exhausted and vacant than anyone has any right to be while on holiday. After she brings Nina’s young daughter back from wandering off, Leda starts remembering the struggles she faced as a young mother (played in flashbacks by Jessie Buckley), desperate to keep her ambitions alive while raising two young daughters. Does Leda see herself in Nina? Or is Nina a reminder of a life Leda doesn’t want to relive?
There are plenty of uncomfortable moments in The Lost Daughter, and in her first turn writing and directing a feature, Gyllenhaal puts her audience right up to the faces of her shuddering characters. Much of the camerawork here looks handheld, and the bulk of the shots are close-ups. But Gyllenhaal isn’t looking for dramatic blow-up moments from her actors, instead showing how her characters observe each other and see their flaws creep out over time.
The most intense aspects of the movie’s drama come from its flashbacks, as a young Leda slowly rejects her status as a stay-at-home mom. The present day segments are more of a slow burn, with Leda’s true intentions remaining vague and unsure (even to herself). It’s as if Gyllenhaal has mangled two different movies into one picture, evenly distributing Leda’s past and present throughout the 121-minute runtime. There is a desire to see what would become of both of Leda’s stories if they were individually fleshed-out into their own separate films, specifically Leda’s past, if only to show how her feelings truly evolved over time à la We Need to Talk About Kevin. Despite that and the movie’s oddly understated ending, it still draws you in with the characters circling around each other and waiting to see what the other is playing at.
As great as it is to see Colman having delicious fun in a role like her Oscar-winning Queen Anne in The Favourite, it’s fascinating to see her inhabit a more restrained, calculating character. She adds condescension to all of Leda’s smiles, her frowns come with a burning rage in her eyes, and there’s always a sense that she’s about to snap at any moment. Not only does Colman’s performance carry that feeling on its own, but it’s emphasized by another incredible turn from Jessie Buckley in the flashbacks. She goes from being the movie’s exuberant and tender heart to shocking bits of cruelty toward her children and rash self-indulgence.
On top of being captivating in its own right, these scenes further add to the mystery of present-day Leda and how she carries herself for the rest of the movie. It’s a fantastic give-and-take between the two actresses and makes you wonder if the two were in close contact with each other while filming their respective scenes. Ed Harris hovers throughout the movie as both a creepy drifter on the barren coastal spot and even a mirror for Leda’s corrupt childrearing. Aside from all that, it’s just amusing to see the typically straight-laced Harris swaying like a drunken sailor among the lost paradise. Dakota Johnson has a surprisingly minimal presence in the movie, drifting in and out of Leda’s line of sight while barely interacting with her. Still, she plays the ghost of Leda’s past well enough, with her gorgeous allure an obvious mask for someone on the verge of cracking under the pressure of familial happiness.
If The Lost Daughter is underwhelming in any way, it’s only in that you wish there was more of it. Gyllenhaal has made a gripping character drama that dares the audience to look at themselves in the mirror and see if they can truly face the scars they left on themselves and others. For all the love and wonder that comes with parenthood, there’s also a dark side to it that can fester and rot if left unchecked. It’s not clear when (if at all) it will end, but The Lost Daughter makes clear that it comes back around no matter how far you run from it.
The Lost Daughter is now playing in select cinemas and is streaming on Netflix starting December 31. You can watch the trailer here.