Motherhood is heavily romanticized in our society, with even the moments of pop culture that reflect some of the hardship that goes along with it shying away from just how truly burdensome it can be. Aside from the ABC show black-ish running a multi-episode arc about post-partum depression, I am hard pressed to think of an example that didn’t relatively quickly gloss over the subject. At least none that didn’t also demonize the mother. And so it is both interesting and refreshing to see it portrayed so honestly and explicitly in Maggie Gyllenhaal’s The Lost Daughter, which marks her first turn behind the camera.
Leda (Olivia Colman) is a college professor and translator who has just arrived in Greece on holiday. She settles in and heads down to the beach to relax and quickly has her peaceful trip disrupted by the arrival of a large, wealthy, and noisy American family. Watching Nina (Dakota Johnson), a young woman in the group, with her toddler daughter reminds Leda of her time with her daughters, which we are shown in flashbacks of her younger self, played by Jessie Buckley. One day, Nina’s little girl goes missing. Leda manages to find her and the two begin an acquaintance, but then it is discovered that the girl’s favorite doll is now missing. As her daughter refuses to calm down, Nina briefly confides of her growing unhappiness with motherhood to Leda, who expresses empathy and begins to recall just how much she disliked of her own experience raising children. Arriving back at her rented apartment, it is revealed that Leda in fact took the doll and is now conflicted about what to do with it, or even why she did so.
Adapted from the novel by Elena Ferrante, Gyllenhaal’s script eviscerates pretty much every fairy-tale idea our society holds about the experience of raising children. Sure, there are moments of familial joy, beautifully shot in gauzy, sun-filled close-ups, but they are mixed with scenes of exhaustion, anger, frustration, isolation, and utter helplessness. Jessie Buckley excels at portraying all of these conflicting moments in her parts of the movie, while Olivia Colman gets to show us escape, irritation, mournful regret, and a well-earned sense of paranoia towards Nina’s threatening family. This is a movie that understands that motherhood is a complicated mess of feelings and that by making women feel ashamed to experience them it only makes them that much harder to deal with. The movie can be harrowing at times, though not exactly qualifying as a thriller, and is a strong debut feature that makes for necessary viewing. ★★★★
RATED r for sexual content / nudity, and language.
★★★★★ = Excellent | ★★★★ = Very Good | ★★★ = Good | ★★ = Fair | ★ = Poor