Venice 2021: Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Superb Debut ‘The Lost Daughter’
by Alex Billington
September 4, 2021
Adapted from the Elena Ferrante novel of the same name, actress Maggie Gyllenhaal makes her feature directorial debut with this feature film The Lost Daughter, which first premiered at the 2021 Venice Film Festival playing in the main competition. And it’s one of my favorite discoveries at the festival this year. The Lost Daughter is a staggeringly intelligent film that challenges the typical ideas of family and how wonderful children are by telling a story about bad mothers. Not just one of them, but a few of them, in fact. I honestly can’t believe this is Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut, it feels like the work of a director with five or six films under their belt already. Featuring astute, assured filmmaking – it’s a refreshing cinematic creation because its a film that challenges viewers, with an exceptionally intellectual script dealing with layers upon layers of psychological concerns and questions about what it means to be a parent and how hard that job is.
The Lost Daughter is about a woman named Leda, played perfectly by Olivia Colman, who is a few years away from turning 50. She arrives at a charming Greek island for a summer beach “work vacation”. As she settles in, enjoying the calm & quiet, a rambunctious family from Queens shows up and disturbs the peace. She watches as one member of this family, a young woman named Nina (Dakota Johnson) interacts with her own young daughter on the beach. At one point the child suddenly disappears, and Leda helps find her. Leda is also a mother, with two daughters in their twenties that she barely speaks with anymore. But here at this place she is all alone, and it seems she prefers it that way. As the story drifts onward, Leda begins to think back to her time as a young mother, and how she treated her kids and the challenges she had spending time with them at that point in her life. Jessie Buckley plays a younger Leda in a number of flashbacks.
More than anything, I appreciate how unexpected and bold The Lost Daughter is. It’s so refreshing to see a film that delicately digs into bad parenting and spends time with complex characters that are flawed. It’s so refreshing to see a film that shows how challenging it is to have children, and how they can take a massive emotional toll on women. It’s so refreshing to see a film that is all about the female gaze, ignoring men and focusing entirely on women, and the many complex feelings they have throughout their life – good or bad. The Lost Daughter is a remarkably deep film that’s challenging in many ways, built around a complex set of women that probably shouldn’t have had children but they’re unable to confront this side of themselves. We rarely ever see films discuss this, it’s a taboo topic and tough to portray but this nails it. Most discussions about the film are even afraid to get into it, vaguely referencing the “consequences of their decisions” rather than the real questions that are posed. But that’s exactly why this is such a compelling and formidable film.
I already have a feeling some people will watch this film and, to quote a popular meme on Twitter, realize “I’m in this and I don’t like it” and react negatively, angrily ripping it apart. They’ll probably end up hating it and react poorly towards anyone who likes it, or at least harshly criticize the film, and never grapple with the truth of what this is addressing. And how sensitively and carefully and beautifully the film handles this story and what’s going on with these characters. It’s not easy to watch a story about women who obsess over themselves and their career achievements, yet fail at being a good parent. It’s not easy for anyone to admit they’re so selfish they couldn’t do a good job raising their own kids, leading to overwhelming feelings about how they’ve turned out now that they’re growing up. But I do I hope some viewers will see how powerful it is to tear through these taboos and challenge viewers with honesty. And hopefully come to appreciate how an intelligent approach to these feelings can result in, what I believe is, a cathartic and invigorating work of art.
It’s also not easy to make a film about these taboo topics and make it this good, especially when the director is directing their very first feature. To top it off, not only does Maggie Gyllenhaal carefully and intellectually discuss these themes in an intricately nuanced way, she has crafted an exceedingly engaging film. The score by Dickon Hinchliffe is outstanding, enhancing the film with its own notes of intrigue and melancholy. The performances by the entire cast are especially gripping, which is not surprising because a very talented actor is now working as director, and actors always know how to get superb performances out of their cast. Ed Harris makes an appearance, bringing some gravitas to his role as the caretaker of the apartment she’s renting. I’m always delighted to watch films that challenge my own ways of thinking, that offer perspectives and understanding that I haven’t encountered before. I’m already looking forward to Gyllenhaal’s next film.