She’s aided immeasurably by first Colman, who delivers a nuanced, multi-layered portrait of a woman who has found a sense of contentment with herself yet is still haunted by the actions of her past–actions for which she is not necessarily regretful. Yet there is just enough conflict between her experiences in the present and her memories to tear slowly at her psyche and emotional well-being. This conflict is only heightened by her interactions with Nina. As the latter, Johnson gives what may be her best performance to date, swerving between her unadulterated love for her daughter and a sense that she has been forced into her circumstances (and her boorish new family) against her will.
And then there is Jessie Buckley (I’m Thinking of Ending Things) as the younger Leda, back when she was struggling both as a mother and a student trying to launch her career and follow her life’s passion. Buckley is simply sensational, and her interactions with her little daughters are equally painful, heartfelt and bitterly realistic. There is a tendency to (rightfully) venerate mothers and motherhood, elevating both to some unattainable combination of sainthood and holy work, but in these sections of the film Gyllenhaal and Buckley present the unvarnished truth of how unimaginably difficult the job can be and how it can feel like a trap as much as a blessing.
It is those complicated views of motherhood that are at the heart of The Lost Daughter, although Gyllenhaal’s script and direction never quite reveal all the motivations at play. Instead we are left to figure them out on our own, which may alienate some viewers but provides a refreshing lack of judgment upon the actions of both the younger and older versions of Leda.
Gyllenhaal and cinematographer Hélène Louvart provide a great visual dynamic for the film, contrasting the wide-open, sun-soaked expanses of the resort with the closed-in, suffocating interiors of the young Leda’s small apartment. This perhaps mirrors the inside of Leda’s mind as well: the dark recesses of her memories set against the freedom and light in front of her. Whether she can ever resolve the two is the mystery that The Lost Daughter refuses to provide an easy answer for, making this an unsettling, poignant and terrific filmmaking debut.
The Lost Daughter opened earlier this month in limited theatrical release and begins streaming Friday, Dec. 31 on Netflix.
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