Movie Review: The Lost Daughter

It’s said that there’s no bond stronger than the one between a mother and her child. But not all maternal bonds are created equal, it seems. My mother used to say that my grandmother never should have been a mother. The maternal instinct just wasn’t in her. I would say the same thing about my mother though, to be fair, she probably did have it at one time until my two brothers and I crushed it out of her. Back then, the concept of “Mommy time” wasn’t an option. The film, THE LOST DAUGHTER, looks at a woman who has what might best be termed as “maternal ambivalence”. It never seemed to bother her before though, until she takes a vacation.

In the film, Leda Caruso (Olivia Colman, THE FATHER; THE FAVOURITE; THE LOBSTER) is a middle-aged professor of comparative literature at an unnamed college in the Boston area. With her daughters now grown up and on their own, she decides to spend her summer vacation renting a small apartment on a Greek isle at a resort managed by American expatriate Lyle (Ed Harris, RESISTANCE; MOTHER!; THE TRUMAN SHOW). It all goes idyllically well until a large, boisterous family from Queens, NY arrives, turning the quiet beach into a three-ring circus. Leda makes the acquaintance of daughter Callie (Dagmara Domińczyk, THE ASSISTANT) who, at 42, is pregnant with her first child (maybe), but it’s her sister-in-law Nina (Dakota Johnson, THE HIGH NOTE; THE PEANUT BUTTER FALCON; SUSPIRIA), the trophy wife of the patriarch’s son, that she connects with. Nina has a 3-year-old daughter, Elena, and she’s struggling to find her own maternal instinct, a feeling that Leda knows all too well. In flashback scenes, Leda (played in her younger years by Jessie Buckley, I’M THINKING OF ENDING THINGS; JUDY) was more concerned with her career than with being a caring mother to two small girls. As the days go by, Leda and Nina begin to get close, especially when Elena is inconsolable after she loses her beloved doll whom she calls her daughter.

Actress Maggie Gyllenhaal (THE KINDERGARTEN TEACHER) in her debut behind the camera does a fabulous job adapting Elena Ferrante’s 2006 novel of the same name to the screen. I’ll concede that the story moves just faster than a snail’s pace, which can be a turn off for some audiences who are used to lasers and explosions, but those who stick with it right to the film’s ambiguous finale will be rewarded with nuanced performances, especially by Colman and Johnson. The film’s strength lies less in the dialogue, of which there is very little, than in the looks Leda gives to Nina as she sees the younger woman engaging – or not engaging – with her daughter. As Leda’s past is slowly peeled away for us, we begin to understand what she’s thinking. The question we’re left with is whether she would have done anything differently if her younger self knew what her older self knows. My guess is no because she just doesn’t have it in her. It’s a sad situation but a very realistic one for many young mothers.

THE LOST DAUGHTER is available now on Netflix. It’s slow going but it’s definitely worth watching.

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