Maggie Gyllenhaal‘s directorial debut The Lost Daughter, adapted from Elena Ferrante‘s novel of the same name, is about as strong as a directorial debut can get.
It pulls few punches; Olivia Colman‘s Leda is not going to win any awards for being the most likeable character ever written, but she may win some for being a complex study of a woman whose layers of pain, accrued over many years, have caked on top of each other.
The film’s flashbacks to Leda’s past are mostly filled with negative moments with her children, and in general the film has a very unromantic view of having kids. They’re annoying, loud, mean and neurotic, with only a few moments of joy sprinkled in to break the spell.
It often feels like Gyllenhaal’s overall point is about how Leda and other mothers in the narrative struggle to live their own independent lives after having children.
Leda calls herself an unnatural mother at one point, and while she loves her children, the sense that her world is now defined solely by them, and that her former life is now over, burns at her, which leads to some surprising revelations the film withholds from us for a while. All this is conveyed through past memories, where younger Leda is played by Jessie Buckley.
The uneasy mystery behind Leda’s relationship with her children make the viewer feel like there might be something more sinister or sad at the core of her general weltschmerz, yet the more realistic and certainly scarier thing might simply be that this is life. Another mother asks her later about when it gets better, the depression, and Leda simply replies that it doesn’t.
It feels like both these women – the other played by Dakota Johnson – perhaps thought that having children was a path to a more fulfilling life and greater happiness, forgetting that the person you are doesn’t change after you have children.
All your flaws are only magnified onto them, feelings aren’t magically fixed. Everything remains the same, just with extra pressure – which of course can’t be talked about.
Leda’s presence on vacation in Greece seems to quietly upset people because she doesn’t adhere to their unspoken rules of what being a woman should be. She doesn’t acquiesce to move her spot on the beach, she’s not intimidated by the large family of “bad” people a worker tells her about, she stands up to rowdy teenagers who invade a cinema when the rest of the patrons sit there quietly.
It’s like her unusual relationship with her own children has transferred itself to the other people she interacts with on the island, who subconsciously see her as someone not adhering to an expected female role of servitude, which is threatening to them.
This kind of nonconformism is usually a positive, but it’s looked down upon within the hierarchy of having children, which often feels like it has to follow a strict set of rules lest the person be seen as a failing mother.
The film also really captures the the awkward pauses, sounds, and misspoken statements during conversations one has with new people, where each person is still figuring out how this relationship is going to work, if it even is at all, which helps reinforce Leda’s outsider status not just on this holiday, but in her own life.
Gyllenhaal’s smart decision to not sand down the edges of Leda to make her more traditionally likeable allows for a deeper exploration of her psyche without the film having to rigidly adhere to rote screenwriting tactics.
Everything she is is on display, warts and all, which helps craft a complex study of someone who has perhaps never truly been happy, and is slowly discovering that she may never be.
Yet despite all the flashbacks to negative moments of the past, it is a small positive one that continues to stick with her. Maybe that’s all she needs to hold on.
The Lost Daughter is currently streaming on Netflix.