Review: The Lost Daughter (2021)

People say that parenting is hard and nothing can prepare you for it, but few talk about what life looks like when you stop being able to cope, or worse, stop trying altogether. Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut tackles parenthood and the lesser discussed bearings of being a mother.

As the non-linear narrative plays out between two time periods for 48-year-old Leda in the present day (Olivia Colman), and twenty something Leda (Jessie Buckley), it is clear that the main character is plagued by some sort of trauma from her past. Gyllenhaal expounds Colman’s nervous energy into a character who the audience struggle to understand at best, and distrust at worst.

On holiday in a small resort in Greece, Leda stays in a huge apartment and spends her days on the beach people watching with quiet envy. She becomes more invested in the life of Nina, a young mother (Dakota Johnson), and her daughter. When the young girl and her doll go missing, Leda transitions from an onlooker from afar to someone who intervenes in the affairs of another family. Her own experiences as a mother cause her to respond in strange ways but what she does is highly questionable and difficult to justify.

As an audience, we witness Leda from many lenses: she’s a sole female traveller and a professor. Independent yet vulnerable. Admirable yet unlikeable. She treads a very thin line between setting clear boundaries and being unpleasant, as demonstrated on several occasions: one when the owner of her apartment (Ed Harris) makes friendly conversation while she is out in the evening (“Do you mind if I finish my dinner now, Lyle?”), and another when she refuses to budge when a pregnant woman (Dagmara Dominczyk) asks her to move her sunbed so that her family can all sit together (“I understand that but I have no desire to move.”) The interesting thing about these exchanges is that she is perfectly polite and calm when she talks, but the recipients are visibly hurt or shocked by the hostility of her words. Leda is smart enough to understand that she is completely rejecting social norms and how people would like her to respond, but does so anyway, disregarding any expectations of her. We’re left to decide whether this is a display of nihilism, narcissism, hedonism, or just plain rudeness.

Decades after becoming a mother, it is clear that the heavy responsibility of being a parent is still incomprehensible for Leda. She was never able to settle into a groove in her life with children and chose to focus on her career in academia studying comparative literature rather than bring up her two daughters. And good for her, she achieved much success as an academic! However, the flashbacks of Leda with her young daughters are unsettling to watch because the children are unhappy and in need of attention from their mother, but Leda often seems like she is unable to meet their needs. The desperation of both mother and daughter is painfully palpable in one scene when one of her daughters begs her mum to “Kiss it better, mummy,” when she hurts herself. Leda refuses. Moments like this really test our ability to empathise with her – when she tells her husband she is suffocating and needs time to focus on her research, it seems reasonable, but this just feels like a display of cruelty.

Instead of showcasing the glossy side of family life, Gyllenhaal has intentionally chosen to highlight a series of memories which evoke negative feelings so that we better understand Leda’s choices. What makes Leda’s decision to leave for a couple of years when her daughters were young even more jarring is the fact that she’s a mother. There is a societal belief that all women are built as maternal beings who can turn off their professional and personal needs to become a full-time care giver when the time comes, but that’s not reality. Leda’s experience as a mother clearly still brings her pain, and whether this is due to a crushing guilt, or because she never dealt with severe post-partum depression, is unknown. We can see that she struggles to talk about her daughters, though, and some memories even cause physical symptoms akin to panic attacks. A lot of her anguish is still suppressed, just like whatever she keeps hidden in that oversized bag of hers! But when it starts to rear its head because people actively ask about it, that’s when we see panic, shame and dread on her face. Becoming a mother ruptured her identity to such a point that she was never able to recover.

That said, our sympathies are stretched to the limit when Leda finds Nina’s daughter’s doll and keeps it. She sees how distressed mother and daughter are that her comforter is gone, and still withholds the toy. She sees Nina struggle, has the ability to stop it, but allows it to continue for far longer than is necessary, almost forcing parallels with the mother-daughter behaviour we see in the flashbacks. Is she trying to mother the doll to make up for what she perceives as her own failings? To not treat it "like shit" as she thought her daughter did with her doll all those years ago? The optimists among us may prefer to think that she believes she is helping Nina out in a roundabout way, but a far more unsettling thought is that she is so disenfranchised with her own experiences as a mother that she feels the need to sabotage the lives of others who seem like they have it far too easy.

The Lost Daughter is a film that will likely stay with you for a while. It quietly instils anxiety, while normalising some of the thoughts that parents have as they muddle through the early years. At the end of it, we are also left to wonder how our feelings towards Leda may be different if she were the father. Leaving a family as a mother feels far more severe, but what does that say about our expectations of the role of men in the family? Is it possible for women to achieve professional success and feel truly accomplished as well as be a ‘good’ mother? How much of the self do women compromise when they become mothers? Gyllenhaal certainly provides much food for thought about parenting dynamics all the while casting and directing Colman and Buckley with deliberate tact while giving us the space to cast our own judgements.


Verdict: Maggie Gyllenhaal's feature directorial debut not only has a sterling cast but digs deep into the complicated psyche of a paranoid woman who is grappling with her past. A triumph.

Overall? ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Big screen appeal? 🎬🎬🎬

Accolade eligibility? 💡💡💡💡

Study-worthy? 📚📚📚📚

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