The Lost Daughter (2021)

Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut The Lost Daughter was a film that hit me unexpectedly. I went in knowing very little about it. All I knew is that the film was adapted and directed by Gyllenhaal, and starred Olivia Colman, Dakota Johnson and Jessie Buckley, and was categorized by Netflix as “cerebral, understated, intimate”. And that’s it. That’s all I had to go off of. I had no indication that the plot would be something I connected with on a couple different levels.

Column: Maggie Gyllenhaal's 'Lost Daughter" captures motherhood - Los  Angeles TimesThe Lost Daughter follows Colman’s character, Leda, on holiday in Greece. It’s there that she meets Nina (Johnson) who has a young daughter Elena. Leda finds herself fascinated with the two, and Elena’s doll, that Leda takes from the beach. From here we uncover Leda’s past, and why she’s reluctant to speak to Nina about raising a child. We are soon told that Leda left her children for three years, when one was seven and one was five, and that she didn’t return to see them until she genuinely missed them. And that, my friends, struck me on two levels: my own mother for all intents and purposes abandoned my brother and I when we were teenagers to live the life she hadn’t before marrying my father, leaving the two of us with him, and, if I was a parent, I know I would be eerily similar to the character of Leda. And I think this is such an important thing to show.

It wasn’t until I was in college that I realized that I did not, in fact, have to have children. Growing up in the Midwest, having children is something that is drilled into you, along with getting married, buying a house, and settling down in the same town or state you were raised in. So, to see a portrayal of a woman who probably shouldn’t have had children but did anyway is tremendously refreshing, because that’s the reality of it. There are plenty of women out there who could relate to Leda, I imagine. And I’m one of them. Watching young Leda (Buckley) get frustrated and overwhelmed and irritated with her daughters struck a chord in me. In my notes, I literally wrote down “Yikes. Me, if I was a parent”. And, because of this similarity that I feel with the character, I do not fault her for leaving to continue with grad school. I know that sounds horrible. I do. But, something about the character of Leda just felt so real. Especially during her conversation with Nina, when Nina’s asking her if the depression ever goes away and Leda responds with a no. Nina asks her what it felt like to leave her daughters, leave her responsibilities, and Leda’s tearful response is “it felt amazing”. And that’s the harsh reality we have to face as women in this society. We aren’t all meant to be mothers. We aren’t all meant to have these families. “I’m an unnatural mother” Leda says at one point, and that’s the line that’s stuck with me the most.

Maggie Gyllenhaal does a beautiful job in directing her actors to get the best performance possible. If you’ve been with me a while, you’ll know that I am not Dakota Johnson’s biggest fan. I routinely avoid watching the movies that she’s in because I’m not a fan of her performances. However, Gyllenhaal manages to get a genuine performance from Johnson. A performance that made me forget that it was Dakota Johnson I was watching. Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley both give powerhouse performances. Buckley, as young Leda, made you feel her frustration and her anger. And Colman made you feel the guilt. And, not guilt for leaving her children. She made you feel the guilt she had because there was no regret in regard to the choices she had made. Colman delivers a gut punch of a performance, and deserves all accolades that come her way.

Now, about that ending: do you think Leda lived or died? Personally, I’m not too sure. Part of me is hopeful that she survived the car accident, after being stabbed with the hat pin. But, the other part of me remembers that she had some head trouble throughout the film (“I got up too fast”), and that, combined with the hat pin injury, combined with the car accident and then falling asleep on the shoreline, I’m not too sure. Leda wakes up the next morning, seemingly fine, about to call her daughters, with an orange in her hand. She tells them “I’m alive, actually” and begins to peel the orange the same way she always has (“peel it like a snake, don’t let it break”) and it’s all just a very surreal moment.

The Lost Daughter is not for everybody. I think, if you don’t find a connection with any of the characters early on, you’ll be bored by the film. However, if like me, you find connection with Leda, you’ll be amazed by the performances, the editing, the writing, all of it. Colman’s performance, alone, will evoke emotions from you that you didn’t even know you had.

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