The Lost Daughter (2021) – Review

The Lost Daughter is now streaming on Netflix.

By Palmer Rubin
Parenthood is a prison when only one parent is doing any of the work. That’s the impression that Leda Caruso (Olivia Colman) seems to have as she sits on a luxurious beach in Greece and watches Nina (Dakota Johnson) deal with a bratty child. It reminds her of her own nightmarish children, and she impulsively steals this little girl’s doll, unable to explain to herself why. It’s a pretty simple beginning, and its not going to nearly as dark places as you might assume. That’s not the vibe it wants for your time with it. Maybe it’s because Leda sees so much in common with Nina, like looking at a younger version of herself. Both had neglectful and apathetic husbands who outright refused to do any parenting themselves. Nina’s husband is pretty much absent despite them still being married. Their lives begin to intersect in more ways than one as both desperately need a friend for different reasons. All the while, in tandem, we watch the younger Leda (Jessie Buckley) as she’s basically abandoned in her own life and is pushed farther and farther to the brink.
That’s essentially what’s on the tin for Maggie Gyllenhaal’s debut. To make sure I’m not misleading anyone, the film is not directly stating that children are evil or anything like that. They’re a lot of work. We often don’t take into account the sheer amount of work it takes to raise even one. In our more individualistic family structures, children are isolated with only two people at the most. Such a thing isn’t sustainable, just as Nina is only able to help raise her kid with the help of an older sister. Leda didn’t even have that. What’s wild is that even as someone who doesn’t have children and never intends to have them, you’ll still feel that anxiety on behalf of both mothers. It helps that it’s Olivia Colman, Jessie Buckley and Dakota Johnson at the performing reigns here. Some might be a bit put off by its increasing flashbacks and indie handheld aesthetic (despite being prominently placed on the world’s largest streaming service), but I don’t think it detracts enough to take away from what all three are bringing to the table. You know two performers are totally in sync when they don’t look or sound remotely like each other and yet the essence of the same character is felt in both. Colman is one of the Oscar winners who did everything to deserve her trophy, and Buckley should’ve been nominated for I’m Thinking of Ending Things. Both are in typically fine form, both playing against type to some degree. It’s the rare chance for both to take a truly leading role and they eat it up like they’ve been doing it their whole lives. Buckley, in particular, gets one of the most heartbreaking moments of the year that I won’t spoil, and she’s the reason it hits so deeply. Even with a film that can often feel slow and uneven in certain bits, two of my favorite actors hitting on all cylinders is still worth the watch on its own. Colman has only been recently given the roles she deserves, and I hope Buckley gets to do so much more. There’s an assortment of a supporting cast at play too, though most admittedly feel a little thread-bare. You’ve got every archetype to choose from: Ed Harris as the lecherous old pervert trying to get into Leda’s pants, Paul Mescal as a younger man Leda has a brief flirtation with, and even Gyllenhaal’s husband Peter Sarsgaard as a professor who the younger Leda gets to know. Not a single one misses, but this is the Leda and Nina show, and everything else ends up feeling a little circumstantial as a result. This isn’t entirely a bad thing, but for those who want some more definition outside of the two leads, you’ll feel a bit let down.
I think the way the film was marketed is a little misleading: this isn’t really a neo-noir or a murder mystery the way it implies. It’s got much more in common with something like Call Me By Your Name, all about vibes in a slightly exotic locale, even if there isn’t much of a love story to go off of. You have these two very complicated mothers, struggling with motherhood in the way we don’t often like to see. It’s poking a hole in the balloon that motherhood is simple and something that all cis women will intuitively grasp. Neither are shown to be particularly good mothers, both curse in front of their kids and are unable to control their hyperactivity, but the film doesn’t bother to judge them for this. Why should we judge parents for being unable to control their children? I don’t want to let that argument getting too out of hand, for every one of us who has seen someone else’s kid have a temper tantrum in public, and the humiliation clearly shown on the parents’ faces. I wasn’t known as an especially “outburst-y” kid, but I was still really difficult to raise in lots of ways. I wasn’t trying to cause any harm, I was just lonely and scared, like most kids are, and our segmenting of family and community life puts all the pressure on the mother in that cisheteronormative context. That’s not quite what Gyllenhaal is trying to get at, and I think it’s the smarter choice to not go too macro with the point she’s trying to make. The near total absence of married men in the film is an intentional choice, one character responds to possibly having to spend any time with the children on his own by trying to take them to a grandmother. There is this notion of the total cis male abdication of marital or parental responsibility. But it doesn’t spend the whole runtime just showing kids being jerks, you see the good moments as well, where Leda cuts orange peels to her kids’ amusement and rolls around with them, laughing hysterically. Parenthood isn’t all hell, and the moments of happiness when the kids are behaving are fleeting. I think that’s what redeems a lot of what otherwise wouldn’t work for this with me, that the nuance is on display first and foremost.
I’ve said all this, but I also want to assure you that there’s way more to be found here than that, and it’s almost entirely unspoiled. I don’t know if it’s my favorite of the year, it still has many of the highlights of a first time filmmaker finding her edge. But for a debut, it’s an assured one, and it proves that Gyllenhaal can and probably will make far better. I’m not quite as enamored with it as some, but I highly respect it for what it ends up trying to spend its time doing.

I give The Lost Daughter a B.