Maggie Gyllenhaal makes a confident writing/directorial debut in an unsettling but empathetic drama about two women on vacation with all too much in common.
Much to the Republican Party’s dismay, the birth rate in the United States has been gradually on the decline, hitting an all-time low in 2020. Couples are not only waiting longer to have children, they’re having less of them, with an average of 1.6 per family. While climate change and cost of living expenses are the primary factors in the decision to have fewer children (or none at all), a small part of it can also be attributed to more people accepting a difficult truth: that raising children can be an incredibly hard and thankless task. Maggie Gyllenhaal makes an assured debut as a writer and director in her adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter, a complicated and strangely moving psychological drama/thriller about two women who bond over this truth.
Leda (Olivia Colman), a middle-aged Ivy League professor, is on a working vacation, renting an apartment on a lovely Greek island. Though the caretaker, Lyle (Ed Harris), and beach bartender Will (Paul Mescal), aggressively ingratiate themselves to her, Leda is excited to get some time away on her own to read and relax. Her solitude is quickly interrupted by the arrival of what appears to be several generations of a family arriving together at the beach, walking around like they own the place. It’s the kind of sprawling, boisterous family in which the adults are always arguing with each other, and the kids are always screaming about one thing or another.
The person who seems to be loosely in charge of this zoo is the heavily pregnant Callie (Dagmara Dominczyk), who casually orders everyone around, and even tries pressing Leda to move from her spot on the beach, with the phony, overly familiar friendliness of someone who wants to sell you some overpriced skincare products. Even before that encounter, the presence of the family makes Leda uneasy. Their body language, and the way they speak both to each other and to other people, suggests that they’re used to getting what they want.
Leda, however, finds herself fascinated (if not entranced) by Nina (Dakota Johnson), Callie’s sister-in-law, who seems a little lost in the shuffle of such a huge, noisy family. While she’s young, seemingly carefree, and looks amazing in a bikini, Nina is also saddled with a little daughter, Elena, who, while adorable, is also a relentless handful, and a failing marriage. While it may initially seem like Leda regards Nina with something like desire, it soon becomes apparent that it’s actually familiarity.
Finding Elena after she wanders off on the beach one day makes Leda a bit of a hero in Nina’s eyes, and the two begin to spend some time together. In watching Nina with Elena, Leda reflects on her own very complicated feelings about motherhood, illustrated in devastating flashbacks, with Jessie Buckley as a young Leda. Leda, both past and present, clearly loves her children, but finds herself happier, and able to breathe, when she’s separated from them. Knowing this fills her with shame even years later, and while she’s relieved to encounter another woman who seems to feel the same way about it that she does, she can also see the pain and loss that’s ahead for Nina.
The Lost Daughter is described as a “thriller,” but that doesn’t seem quite right. Nothing particularly shocking happens, unless you’re the kind of person who finds a woman wanting more in her life than being a mother shocking, but maybe that’s the point. Even well into the 21st century, and with that steadily declining birth rate, we’re still averse as a culture to admitting that motherhood isn’t always the blissful experience we make it out to be. Kids are demanding, they’re loud, and they don’t seem to have an “off” button. They can be thoughtless, and even a little mean, and they cry, they cry so much, even when there doesn’t seem to be anything really worth crying about. But saying those things out loud, let alone a mother admitting that maybe she just doesn’t want to deal with it anymore, is still controversial.
There’s a fascinating sense of unease to everything that perhaps earns it its “thriller” description. A lighthouse casts a constant beam through Leda’s apartment, as if watching her. Callie seems to look right through Leda with an almost knowing smirk on her face, asking prying questions and positing herself as some sort of expert on what a “good” mother is, even though she’s only pregnant with her first child. Even the overly friendly Lyle grins at Leda like he knows something she doesn’t. It is, of course, Leda’s own paranoia causing this, as if her status as an “unnatural mother” is written on her forehead for everyone to see.
Gyllenhaal’s script refreshingly doesn’t hold the viewer’s hand through every aspect of it, and leaves some tantalizing questions unanswered. What does Will mean when he describes Callie’s family as “bad”? How do Leda’s now-adult daughters feel about her? What is the motivation behind the bizarre theft Leda commits? None of it is explained, and it doesn’t have to be. Humans are inscrutable creatures, and often do things, make decisions, that don’t make any sense, not even to them.
In a time when audiences seem to demand that filmmakers carefully delineate which characters are “good” and which are “bad,” the characters in The Lost Daughter all exist in a far more realistic gray area. Callie could easily be set up as a one-note villain to Leda’s heroine, with Nina the innocent they fight over. But, as it turns out, Callie’s role in everything ends up being almost a red herring, and Leda is a complex woman who does impulsive, thoughtless things. In flashbacks, we see her step away from her children at a playground to talk dirty to a lover on the phone. It may seem startling, even repulsive, until we remember that we all know at least one person who’s cheated on their spouse, and we love them anyway. It’s a mistake driven by unhappiness. It makes her a flawed, believable human being.
Though it goes without saying that Olivia Colman is excellent, and that Dakota Johnson has left the Fifty Shades series far behind her, the real standout here is Jessie Buckley. Buckley beautifully illustrates the most predominant emotions of motherhood–frustration, guilt, delight, blind adoration–playing a character who manages to be both unlikable and profoundly sympathetic at the same time. The most unexpectedly moving moment is when she attends an academic conference without her husband and children, in what might be the first time she’s been anywhere alone in seven years. Even just the act of ordering a single glass of wine from room service makes her as giddy as a child on Christmas morning, and that’s before she meets a colleague (Peter Sarsgaard) attracted to her not because she’s a good and capable mother, but because of her mind.
The affair Leda has with this colleague may seem like a terrible mistake, the first stick of dynamite she throws at her family. But, as anyone with a deeply unhappy mother can tell you, to stay, to grit your teeth and insist that everything is fine, and you need nothing else, is its own kind of Hell. The Lost Daughter empathizes with the women who quietly exist somewhere in the middle.
The Lost Daughter is now available on Netflix.
The Lost Daughter Trailer: