What does it mean to be fulfilled? What does happiness even look like when your wants, your needs, are in conflict? That’s the heart of The Lost Daughter, a movie that — despite what the trailer may lead you to believe — is only briefly about an actual missing girl. This is no psychological thriller nor stirring melodrama, though it feints in those directions at times. Instead, The Lost Daughter is a portrait of a complex, inscrutable woman. She is a puzzle made of choices and reactions, one you’ll struggle to solve for the entire runtime … until the last missing piece falls into place in the film’s final moments and completes the picture. A picture that is both simpler and more profound than you imagined.
I’ll be honest, though — I couldn’t watch this in one sitting. I know, I know — bad critic, bad! But look, by about 40 minutes in I had a complete emotional breakdown and had to walk away, and that reaction is also part of what makes this movie so special (and why, in this case, I’m happy I wasn’t watching it in a theater surrounded by a bunch of people). I didn’t just identify with this movie, I felt it — like there’s a wound in me the shape of which I was only passingly aware of, a wound made of fear and doubt — and The Lost Daughter just poked a finger straight in there and wouldn’t let go. So please bear with me while I try to unpack this.
The Lost Daughter was written and directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal, adapted from the novel of the same name by Elena Ferrante. The plot, such as it is, centers on Leda (Olivia Colman), a professor spending her summer holiday on a close-knit Greek island. One day she observes an exhausted young mother named Nina (Dakota Johnson) at the beach, and when Nina’s little girl wanders off Leda is the one who finds her — but in the confusion, Leda also steals the girl’s favorite doll. The whole island gets involved in the hunt for the toy, while Leda bonds with Nina, who reminds her of her own past as a frustrated young mother. I haven’t read the book so I can’t tell you how faithful the movie is, but it’s easy to see Gyllenhaal’s own unique authorial stamp on the material. It’s there in the way she frames the doll behind Leda as she welcomes caretaker Lyle (Ed Harris) into her apartment, a secret waiting to be discovered. It’s there as Leda takes too long to respond to questions or dismisses them entirely, an awkward prickliness that keeps Leda isolated, and it’s there when she chooses to offer the rare honest answer or make the first move, a hint that isolation isn’t exactly what Leda wants. It’s even there when Gyllenhaal shoots the first foray of a love affair in Leda’s past not as an explosion of passion but a cautious caress of Peter Sarsgaard’s chest hair.
[And sorry to sidebar here, but for my money, nobody has ever created a better cinematic love letter to their significant other than Gyllenhaal did with Sarsgaard’s chest in that scene, like “HERE IS THE MANSCAPE THAT LAUNCHED A THOUSAND SHIPS,” and honestly good for them!]
But perhaps Gyllenhaal’s biggest mark on this story is simply the decision to hire Olivia Colman and hang the entire thing on her performance, because as good as the movie is — and it’s great! — it wouldn’t work half as well without Colman as its focus. Gyllenhaal knows that Leda is the mystery here, and so her camera hangs on Colman’s face as she flickers through annoyance and caution and cruelty and bliss, her eyes stony one moment and shimmering with unwept tears the next. The plot is minimal because it’s window dressing, really — just an excuse to put Leda in new situations and scrutinize her reactions, and Colman’s sweet spot is being an effortless everywoman that still stands out. Even when she’s at her most unsympathetic, you’ll find it hard to judge her. If The Lost Daughter is a portrait of a complicated woman, then Olivia Colman is the Mona Lisa at the center of it all — the opaque figure we translate our own meaning onto.
But Colman is only Leda in the present, and there’s another part of The Lost Daughter that’s playing catch-up. In these flashbacks, Jessie Buckley (I’m Thinking of Ending Things) plays Leda as a stifled young woman with two daughters and a stalled academic career, her suffocation obvious yet unnoticed by her husband. Early on these flashbacks tease Leda yelling on a beach for her own wayward girl, and we’re left wondering if that is the real lost daughter of the title. Is there a tragedy in her past that will explain all of her actions in the present? The movie, though, is in no rush to satisfy our curiosity, and instead shows us Leda impatiently scolding her children, or refusing to kiss their boo-boos and soothe their tears, until eventually a reprieve arrives in the form of an invitation to a conference where a charismatic researcher (Sarsgaard) praises her professional work in front of a room full of her peers. It seems she’s found a missing piece of herself in the eyes of the man who sees her, not as a mother, but as a woman and a colleague, and their affair makes sense for a time. It gives Leda balance as well as an escape, and the payoff is that she becomes a more patient and affectionate mother again back home. We never see their eventual break-up, but we see the moment that broke the illusion of this safe space Leda had hollowed out for herself: She admits to her lover that she hates talking to her children on the phone, and he responds judgmentally, “Don’t say that.” He rejects her truth as a mother, just as surely as everyone else in her life has turned away from her suffocation and exhaustion, and as she glances away we know this tryst is done. However, the affair crystalized for Leda that she needs her professional and personal existence, her life outside of the home, far more than she needs her life at home — and so she walks out on her family. For a time, anyway.
Through these glimpses of the past, it’s easy to see why Leda is so drawn to Nina, as if she’s witnessing a younger version of herself she could guide. The problem is that she has no comfort to offer. The Lost Daughter examines the unrealistic myth of motherhood as some sanctified, selfless role above and beyond oneself, and like Leda it has little comforting to say on the matter. “Children are a crushing responsibility”, she says without adding the usual palliative that it’s all worth it. Later she admits that she was an “unnatural mother” and “selfish.” The children we see are demanding and difficult and adorable, the mothers are frustrated and short-tempered and caring, and the pieces of themselves they pass to their girls aren’t always the ones they intend. Leda herself often gravitates away from mothers, the people most likely to both sympathize and condemn her for her choices, and instead confides again and again in the male figures around her. Depending on your own feelings about having kids, you’ll find plenty to support your bias: Proof that being childless is better, or validation of the unseen sacrifices of motherhood and the unbreakable bond it forges despite all odds. For me, again, all I felt was the fear and doubt — identifying Leda’s selfishness at the root of me — and wondered if the answer is simply that maybe not everyone is cut out for being a mother. Maybe not everyone can find the balance between who they are as a person and who they need to be to their children. Maybe nobody can, and that balance is unattainable — the best you can hope for is that you make the sacrifices and the mistakes that you can live with. Maybe the question isn’t whether having kids is worth it, but whether you’re worth it.
You’ll never know until you try, as they say, and that’s the ultimate grace of The Lost Daughter. While we’re busy waiting for the tragedy that informs the standoffish, meanish person Leda becomes, the story finally shows its hand. Nothing in life made Leda who she is. Rather, it’s Leda who made her life. It’s who she is that shaped her choices and determined the path her life took, and while that path was rocky — while you may not have agreed with her choices — she did find a sort of fulfillment after all, as a woman and a mother. Perhaps happiness isn’t a thing of the moment but cumulative, and maybe having it all is just a matter of time. Perhaps selfishness isn’t the problem but the solution. The Lost Daughter isn’t a portrait of happiness as harmony the way the Mona Lisa is; It’s a thing of disharmony, of embracing your internal conflicts and imperfections, of surviving your mistakes and accepting the consequences. Of being true to your essential self in all your many roles in life. Only then can you come out the other side and find any sort of peace. And isn’t that exactly the sort of lesson kids deserve to witness from their parents?
The Lost Daughter is streaming on Netflix now.
Header Image Source: Netflix (via YouTube)