In The Lost Daughter, the picturesque Greek seaside becomes soiled for the solitary Leda, as regrets haunt her while she basks on the beach. The feature film is Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial and writing debut as she explores what it means to be a good mother. With frequent flashbacks to a younger Leda (Jessie Buckley), Gyllenhaal creates a complex character and a film that demonstrates how Leda’s past mistakes have shaped the course of her life.
The present Leda (Olivia Colman) is a literature professor who is vacationing on a Greek island. She frequents the beach and, although mostly isolated and introverted, meets Nina (Dakota Johnson), a young mother of a three-year-old child who is staying with her extended family. Leda sympathizes with Nina as she watches the young mother give constant attention to her demanding young daughter, and Nina becomes frustrated and exhausted.
The film poses serious questions about how society views the role of motherhood as self-sacrificial, as if it should be expected that a woman lose the ability to follow her passions and dreams after having a child. In flashbacks, a younger Leda regularly loses her patience with her two young daughters, as her inability to commit to her academic work shows the frustration that comes about from having to attend to small children. Gyllenhal employs a handheld camera and regularly uses close-ups during these flashbacks, giving the scenes an unpolished, claustrophobic, and authentic feel.
The film muddies the complex and compelling question of what makes a good mother by trying to be open-ended, being sure that it does not cast a character’s decisions in a negative light but instead building characters around their decisions.
The film does not reveal the pivotal events of Leda’s past until the end of the film, but the missing details don’t keep the viewer guessing. Instead, the present Leda’s actions become confusing to the viewer, as the film offers little insight into Leda’s motivations throughout the plot.
Although Gyllenhaal uses point-of-view shots to allow viewers to see through Leda’s eyes, many of the choices Leda makes, including her questionable involvement with Nina’s family, seem more confusing than intriguing to the viewer. Leda’s motivations become more clear once the film reveals why Leda is so isolated in the present, but the film bores and confuses its audience until there is enough information to put the puzzle together.
The audience is left with a film that asks a daring and necessary question but fails to do much more. It’s like a song where a particular catchy lyric or beat is so brief that it makes the rest of the song—packed with so much potential—suddenly unsatisfying when it doesn’t live up to that perfect moment. While this film missed the mark, Gyllenhaal has plenty of promise as a writer and director and it is her next film as one to keep an eye out for.
Featured Image Courtesy of Netflix