Maggie Gyllenhaal has a filmmaker’s eye. Now, that may seem like it comes with the territory of being a terrific actress who has worked with tremendous directors, but it doesn’t always translate. Here, however, it does. You can tell she’s going to have an amazing career behind the camera. However, at least for yours truly, her writing and directing debut, The Lost Daughter, is more of an interesting failure than an undisputed success. Gyllenhaal’s strengths as a filmmaker are certainly on display, but they’re in service of a story that doesn’t quite deserve it. Playing at Film Fest 919, it’s another intriguing Netflix Oscar hopeful, but it frustrates more than it enthralls.
The Lost Daughter has moments that shine, but it’s within a package that’s decidedly less than satisfying. The acting, as well as Gyllenhaal’s clear talents, are easily on display. It’s just hard not to notice how much this is building up to a distressingly small payoff. Now, a lot of that is by intent, but it doesn’t make for a film that’s particularly compelling. For every element that strikes your fancy, at least one other has you scratching your head. That’s what ultimately holds this movie ever so slightly back from a recommendation.
Based on the novel of the same name, this is the story of a beach vacation that takes a dark turn. College professor Leda (Olivia Colman) is taking a vacation to a small coastal town in southern Italy, anticipating relaxation. Almost immediately, however, things go in a different direction. Not long after the home’s caretaker Lyle (Ed Harris) sets her up, she heads to the beach, encountering a brash family. Young mother Nina (Dakota Johnson) in particular, haggard from her rambunctious daughter, stirs something in Leda. In short order, she begins thinking back to her younger days, along with the struggles she had in raising her own daughters.
As the narrative flashes back and forth between current Leda and her younger self (played by Jessie Buckley), she begins confronting the unconventional choices she’s made. The more she watches Nina flounder, especially when her daughter loses her doll in unusual circumstances, the more Leda begins seeing elements of her own motherhood. Where it goes, I’ll leave for you to discover.
Olivia Colman is, unsurprisingly, excellent here. The best part of The Lost Daughter is her performance, bar none. Colman digs deep into this complex character to put forth a complex turn. She’s not playing much of a likable character and she boldly leans into it. Dakota Johnson is a bit underserved, but she makes the most of a few big scenes. One or two between Colman and Johnson really do land in a major way. Ed Harris, unfortunately, is wasted in a glorified cameo. Other members of the cast include Dagmara Dominczyk, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Paul Mescal, Peter Sarsgaard, and more.
Maggie Gyllenhaal showcases directorial chops far beyond what you’d expect for her first time out. Her direction is as confident as you’ll ever see from a first timer. The visuals are crisp and simple, yet they’re always trying to convey something. As a writer, however, Gyllenhaal bit off more than she can true. The themes of The Lost Daughter are always present, but they’re never really given a proper platform, You certainly know what she’s getting at, but the flick doesn’t find a satisfying manner to get it all across.
The Lost Daughter is a movie that likely will play better to mothers. That’s not a critique in the slightest, but it already seems like those who relate closest to the characters have found the most to latch on to. It’s also possible that I’m just in the minority with this one largely bouncing off of me. Gyllenhaal is going to have a hell of a career as a filmmaker, even if this flick didn’t fully work for me. It was part of a strong Film Fest 919 lineup and now gets set to receive an awards push from Netflix later on this year. It wasn’t for me, but it may well be for you…