‘The Lost Daughter’ Movie Review: Maggie Gyllenhaal’s Feature Directorial Debut Is Masterfully Complex and Layered

The Lost Daughter is an exceptional and unique piece of storytelling. It’s based on Elena Ferrante’s novel of the same name, but Maggie Gyllenhaal’s writing and direction are remarkably singular in nature. Olivia Colman, Jessie Buckley, Dakota Johnson, and Ed Harris elevate the work in genuine ways that boost the story’s subtleties. The Lost Daughter is the type of movie that allows its biggest secrets to loom under the surface.

‘The Lost Daughter’ is Maggie Gyllenhaal’s feature directorial debut

'The Lost Daughter' review Olivia Colman as Leda sitting down wearing sunglasses
Olivia Colman as Leda | Yannis Drakoulidis/Netflix

Leda Caruso (Colman) is a professor who decides to head to Greece for her summer holiday. She meets the kind, albeit a bit intrusive Lyle (Ed Harris) and beach house worker, Will (Paul Mescal). Leda is enjoying the silence and serenity of the gorgeous Greek landscapes. However, her peace is short-lived.

Nina (Johnson), her young daughter, and other members of their family noisily enter the beach. Leda is noticeably agitated by their arrival, but she quickly becomes infatuated with Nina and her daughter’s relationship. It recalls the memories of her early motherhood, which begin to unravel her entire state of being.

Olivia Colman depicts the regret of motherhood

The Lost Daughter opens on Leda driving to her vacation spot. Gyllenhaal’s screenplay doesn’t give any sort of introduction or set any status quo for the lead. The story leaves bread crumbs that are provided through her conversations with staff and other vacationers. Nina’s arrival is the onset of something major, as Leda’s past and relationship with her daughters become more evident through flashbacks.

Gyllenhaal’s screenplay is filled with tension, even when it’s exploring past events. However, Leda’s run-ins with other rude vacationers rack up the stress. The audience is never fully made aware of what they’re capable of, making them a constant looming threat throughout the runtime. The Lost Daughter keeps its audience on the edge of their seat and never gives a moment to settle.

The most pivotal and poignant element of The Lost Daughter is its message on motherhood. Leda’s past reveals painful moments that impact the present day. At one point, she describes herself as an “unnatural mother,” as The Lost Daughter rejects the stereotypical and traditional motherhood discourse. This is particularly relevant in the doll motif, as Leda cares for an inanimate object.

‘The Lost Daughter’ is subtlety haunting

'The Lost Daughter' review Dakota Johnson as Nina and Athena Martin as Elena standing on the beach with Nina looking behind her
L-R: Dakota Johnson as Nina and Athena Martin as Elena | Netflix

The Lost Daughter doesn’t let its characters off the hook. Gyllenhaal displays the pressure and regret of motherhood, although her approach never seeks to demonize or redeem its characters. They are all deeply flawed, yet complex human beings with an abundance of depth. The Lost Daughter exists entirely in a moral gray area. It’s often so stressful because it doesn’t tell its audience how to feel. You must do the hard work yourself.

The performances are stellar from top to bottom. Colman is a particular standout in the lead role. She explores the character’s moral gray area to perfection. Colman even depicts the contradictory nature of her character’s emotions in the way she smiles. Buckley’s performance as a younger Leda is just as powerful. Johnson and Harris have smaller roles that remain pivotal to the story, although they are just as magnificent.

The Lost Daughter is a difficult film to process, but it’s all the richer for it. Gyllenhaal displays fresh talent behind the camera in her feature directorial debut. Her film begs its audience to explore their own moral judgment as Leda’s story unfolds. The Lost Daughter is remarkable storytelling that digs under the skin and haunts the audience long after the credits roll.

The Lost Daughter hits limited theaters on Dec. 17 and will stream on Netflix starting Dec. 31.

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