Maggie Gyllenhaal Fearlessly Questions Motherhood with ‘The Lost Daughter’

What do you lose when you become a parent?

We don’t often ask the question or seek an answer. Most of human existence has positioned parenthood as life’s ultimate purpose. American popular culture elevated the nuclear family concept to vaunted heights and labeled any deviation from that standard as a moral failing or personal deficiency. We have, to an extent, moved beyond that framework to expand what families can look like and mean. However, our conversations around parenthood can still lack nuance. We struggle to grant grace when the experience of raising children pushes parents, especially mothers, to the limits of their being.

With The Lost Daughter, Maggie Gyllenhaal takes a powerful and intelligent step towards rectification. Her directorial debut follows Italian literature professor Leda Caruso (Olivia Colman) on a Greek vacation, seeking peaceful solitude even though tourists and locals seek to disrupt it at every turn. Leda’s peace vanishes for good when she encounters Nina (Dakota Johnson) and her young daughter, members of an intimidating, potentially dangerous family. Nina’s struggles with her daughter trigger a deep emotional response in Leda, who identifies the young mother’s difficulties as her own. Leda’s vacation slowly devolves into a psychological maelstrom, as present anxieties and memories of her past self (Jessie Buckley) raising her two daughters bleed into each other.

Gyllenhaal is in masterful command, achieving a complex balance of tone, pace, and plot while still considering the film’s cerebral nature. She establishes from the beginning that something isn’t quite right with Leda’s holiday. She fills the atmosphere with a foreboding intensity that insists something or someone will ruin her vacation and even her life. Everyone Leda meets is up for suspicious appraisal, from the unassuming house caretaker Lyle (Ed Harris) to the slightly bumbling beachfront attendant Will (Paul Mescal). Leda’s unflappability and the lack of physical danger only heighten the tangible anxiety, as do Gyllenhaal’s sharp cuts and claustrophobic close-ups. The film pulses with that energy and tightly locks us in as it fearlessly excavates Leda’s psyche.

Dakota Johnson and Olivia Colman in The Lost Daughter (Courtesy: Netflix)

The Lost Daughter is a Russian nesting doll of motherhood, the painted veneers of civility and societal expectation burying the bone-deep exasperation and accompanying guilt sitting uneasily at the core. Gyllenhaal carefully explores Nina and Leda’s different but similarly tenuous relationships with parenting, specifically how they fight and fear for their agency, individuality, and vitality. Gyllenhaal’s artful and precise structuring of past and present – the film’s sense of intrigue serving as a propulsive agent – makes the parallels striking. From three unique vantage points, we see how deep a mother’s choices and mistakes can reach inside and rip them to shreds, how time, distance, adultery, and camaraderie don’t necessarily heal the existential wounds.

Not content with simply starting a conversation about maternal challenges, Gyllenhaal pushes even further by de-stigmatizing it. The Lost Daughter doesn’t apologize or make excuses for its characters’ misgivings about motherhood, nor does it punish them with some reductive karmic retribution. The film gives them, especially Leda, the space to own their choices, grapple with the consequences, and move forward with consideration instead of regret. Leda may still be processing the impact of young motherhood decades later, but she is resolute, even defiant, in her embrace of herself. And yet, despite her rejection of motherhood’s societal expectations, Leda loves her children in her own way. She can dance unabashedly to Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer” and find solace in peeling an orange like a snake to entertain her girls. The film doesn’t victimize or vilify; it understands motherhood contains multitudes. Instead, it offers radical empathy, thoughtful context, and freedom that feels revolutionary.

Olivia Colman in The Lost Daughter (Courtesy: Netflix)

Gyllenhaal assembles one of the year’s best casts to bring her incisive vision to life, led by Oscar winner Olivia Colman. Colman makes a feast out of the role of Leda, delivering another sterling performance of rich interiority and expansive range, possibly her best yet and undoubtedly Oscar-worthy. Her face is a kaleidoscope of expression, and Gyllenhaal wisely keeps her camera on it as much as possible to attempt the futile exercise of cataloging all the slivers of emotion she can convey in one moment. Jessie Buckley has the unenviable task of sharing a role with Colman, but she excels in reflecting Leda’s willfulness with an edge of youthful abandon. Dakota Johnson is great as Nina, especially in moments when she gets to add to the film’s unsettling air. Even though his role is relatively small, Paul Mescal also makes an impression as Will, exhibiting surprising romantic chemistry with Colman that I wish the film utilized more.

If all The Lost Daughter accomplished was a frank discussion about maternity’s downsides, it would still be a standout work from a first-time auteur. Rather than play it risky, Gyllenhaal aims squarely for the stratosphere with an absorbing film that challenges how we think about raising children and allows us to consider more freely how it changes someone, for better or worse. Her wildly successful effort is more than just a contender for 2021’s best film; it marks the emergence of a vital voice in Hollywood who is poised to surpass even the stratosphere in her future works.  

The Lost Daughter is currently streaming on Netflix.

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