The “Best Actress Showcase” film is a common thing during Awards Season, typically in the form of a story uniquely suited to a female lead character, and often cast and shot in a way that heavily features the top line actress in an attempt to garner some hardware at the expense of everything else. It’s been all too frequent in recent years, and there’s a very good chance that come 2022, the entire Best Actress field will consist only of these performances. It’s a sad reality of Hollywood at times, where a spotlight performance for a woman has to be engineered rather than allowed to happen organically in a mainstream film.
When it comes to The Lost Daughter, however, the trope is reinforced while being spun back on itself. Normally these types of films only allow the lead actress to shine in hopes of prestige, but here, there’s a four-way priority between two actresses playing the same role, a part that practically begs, “Nominate me for Supporting Actress,” and the director. Everything else falls by the wayside like any other showcase film, but it is surprising and noble in its own way to juggle four direct campaigns rather than just one.
Written and directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal in her feature debut (adapted from the novel by pseudonymous author Elana Ferrante), the film is a deeply intimate treatise on the less lovable side of motherhood. Leda (played by Olivia Colman in the film’s present and by Jessie Buckley in flashbacks) is a middle-aged empty-nester visiting a seaside resort in Greece to simply get away from the world and decompress. Unfortunately, every attempt at respite is interrupted by the almost Murphy’s Law-esque aggravations that accompany any solo vacation, most notably other people.
Leda’s holiday is quickly dashed by the arrival of a large extended family of Greek natives and American tourists, led by the brash and very pregnant Callie (Dagmara Domińczyk of Kinsey and Running with Scissors) celebrating her birthday. Oblivious and imposing, Callie’s first direct contact with Leda (after several loud interventions around her) is to presume that she can have Leda’s umbrella for her group because it’s more convenient than finding an unused one for themselves. When Leda politely refuses, she’s naturally insulted by the rest of the group, with only a slight apology in the form of unwanted cake from Callie later on.
More importantly, Leda notices a young woman called Nina (Dakota Johnson) constantly pestered by her toddler daughter. These are tense, triggering scenes that Leda knows all too well, as she has two grown daughters of her own. When the little girl goes missing, Leda is the one who eventually finds her, but for reasons known but to God, she surreptitiously takes the girl’s favorite doll, the loss of which causes her to throw a continuous tantrum throughout the remainder of the film. Leda cleans and cares for the doll while the others search in vain, including a rather brilliant shot where a woodland trail has every other tree marred by a bright blue “reward” sign for it.
All of these moments, plus potential romantic suitors in the forms of Ed Harris and Paul Mescal, parallel to memories of Leda’s early years as a parent, portrayed by Buckley. She can’t get a moment’s rest. Her daughters poke and prod with no regard for the physical pain they cause, to say nothing of general annoyance. She’s sexually unsatisfied, leading to an affair with a fellow academic played by Gyllenhaal’s real-life husband Peter Sarsgaard. Even the doll has a counterpart, as Buckley’s Leda gives her favorite inanimate companion to her eldest child, only to have her treat it improperly to the point that Leda breaks it rather than let her kid abuse it.
Two of the three lead performances her are absolutely stellar. Colman has already won an Oscar, and she deserves serious consideration for another (after being nominated again earlier this year). Buckley also gives a tremendous turn, hopefully to the point where she gets the attention she’s long deserved. Both sides of the role of Leda are played with a quiet yet assertive poise, balancing desire with guilt while bottling up a desperate rage in the vain hope of preventing its escape. Johnson, on the other hand, has a few good moments, but her characterization isn’t strong enough to evoke any firm reaction. There are hints that she wants and needs some guidance from Leda as a kindred spirit who’s experienced all the hell she’s going through, but she’s also just as impulsive and imposing as Callie, preventing Leda (and us) from having enough sympathy to really give a shit.
Still, Gyllenhaal, along with cinematographer Hélène Louvart, paints a gripping picture, framing extremely close to the leads throughout the proceedings, allowing us in the audience to get too close for comfort along with the other irritants on Leda’s trip. This helps us feel the pressure to the point of claustrophobia as Leda relives some of the more traumatic moments of a role that society expects her to openly embrace even when it’s shit. The editing leaves a bit to be desired at times, as the flashbacks to Buckley’s time includes secondary flashbacks and asides within them, which is a bit confusing from a narrative standpoint, but overall, the point definitely gets across, giving us a legitimate mystery as to what wrongs Leda committed as a matriarch, and how they still follow her much too closely to this day. There’s also a lovely running metaphor about peeling an orange “like a snake” so that the rind never breaks apart, the peel being done in one continuous motion. Not only does the snake imagery belie the sometimes duplicitous nature of Leda’s personality, but it’s also a great visual example of just how hard it is to keep everything together and running smoothly, a demand that everyone (especially moms) experiences in their lives.
There are times when this feels like an incomplete movie, mostly because there’s no real inciting incident or resolution to the story. It’s mostly just a bunch of stuff that happens while we get a deep examination of Leda’s psyche. And as I said, whereas normally this would be a “Best Actress Showcase,” Gyllenhaal expands that focus to herself as writer and director as well as her three core women performing on the screen. But apart from that, the characters are flat, serving as little more than props for the others to polish their Oscar reels, which is strange, because at least in Colman’s case, it’s not at all necessary, as she’s not only already won, but she beat Glenn Close trying to cash in on such a campaign. But for what it is, The Lost Daughter does work because it dares to give us not only a flawed heroin, but one who acknowledges her past, continues to cope with it, and offers only the wisdom of her years rather than an unwarranted and insincere apology.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? Who’s your favorite actor-turned-director? Does a film like this make you think twice about parenthood in general? Let me know!