There are countless films about happy families and the joys of motherhood. The debut feature from award-winning actress Maggie Gyllenhaal is not one of them.
Adapted from the novel by Elena Ferrante, it tells the story of Leda (Olivia Colman), a college professor who has gone off to Greece on holiday by herself. Italian literature is her forte and she has decided to hit the beach for some relaxation while working on some translations.
The island choice appears idyllic, at least momentarily, but is soon invaded by a large vacationing family who take away all of her peace and quiet. Leda becomes drawn to a young mother named Nina (Dakota Johnson) and her daughter, who suddenly disappears one afternoon and sends every person in the vicinity off into the outskirts of the beach to search for her.
The incident causes Leda to reflect back on her own life and struggles as a mother. In flashbacks, we go back in time twenty or so years to watch her in younger years (played brilliantly in these scenes by Jessie Buckley). Juggling work, marriage, and two young daughters was not Leda’s specialty and we watch moments some would call selfish and cruel.
It’s all brought into focus in a moment where Leda’s on the beach talking with Nina’s sister-in-law Callie (Dagmara Dominczyk) and simply says, “children are a crushing responsibility.”
Gyllenhaal assembled a top-notch team to bring her first film to life. Cinematographer Hélène Louvart (“Beach Rats”) beautifully captures the sunnyside of the Greek isle and its inhabitants, even when the story turns dark, while composer Dickon Hinchliffe provides a lush score that simultaneously feels retro and modern.
I was also quite struck by the editing that ebbs and flows like the tide on the beach, taking us back to key remembrances in the past that strike Leda in the moment. We slowly chip away at her backstory to realize more clearly just how damaged she truly is.
“The Lost Daughter” had its world premiere earlier this fall at the Venice International Film Festival where Gyllenhaal won Best Screenplay. It subsequently has swept the Gotham Independent Spirit Awards where it picked up Best Feature, Breakthrough Director, Best Screenplay, and Outstanding Lead Performance for Colman.
This week it was nominated for multiple Critics’ Choice, Golden Globes, and Independent Spirit Awards.
It’s rare to see such a fully realized and accomplished film from a first-time director and I can’t wait to see what Gyllenhaal does next.
“The Lost Daughter” opens in select theaters this weekend. It begins streaming On Netflix starting December 31.