Leda Caruso lives near Boston as a professor of comparative literature, we assume living a life of deep regret and unhappiness. We don't really know, though, because we are getting to meet Leda on the first day of her vacation at a seaside rental in Greece. She's alone on this vacation and not terribly friendly or enjoyable to be around to most of the people she meets. Her first morning in Greece, she grabs an orange out of the complimentary bowl of fruit on the table, only to find the bottom half is rotting. In fact, the back side of all the fruit has started to turn; the front side looks ripe and delicious, even as the reverse blackens and begins to rot.
This is the metaphor for absolutely every moment of import in Maggie Gyllenhaal's directorial debut, "The Lost Daughter." The beauty of Greece, the facile friendliness of the locals and other tourists and the peace she feels while on vacation are all just surface-level shading, covering up the blemishes and ugliness hidden underneath. For every serene beach, there is a screaming child; for every smiling face, there is a hidden sneer of dislike, and for every colorful bowl of fruit there is the large possibility of a rotten apple.
"The Lost Daughter" stars the always astounding Olivia Colman as Leda, a woman haunted by the choices of her youth who moves through the days of her vacation with an uncanny blend of single-minded selfishness and fragile vulnerability. Many critics and audience members have accused her character of being unlikable, but there's enough of her humanity on display to keep her at the very least relatable in the moments where she could be marginally less cruel.
As Leda spends most of her days on the beach translating for her job, she begins paying attention to a loud and brash family of off-season residents that one of the locals informs her are considered "bad people." Of particular interest to Leda are Nina (played by the ever-improving Dakota Johnson) and her young daughter, who remind Leda of her younger days. We see those days in flashbacks (the younger version of Leda is played by Jessie Buckley, who is fast becoming one of her generation's finest actresses), and grow to understand the middle-aged Leda as we see what kind of mother she was in the past.
There's not much plot to the film other than a little bit of a mystery surrounding Nina and her family; instead, Gyllenhaal is much more interested in human behavior and generational trauma while also crafting one of the most profoundly unsentimental looks at motherhood ever put down on film. Leda herself mentions that she's a deeply selfish woman without many of the typical touchstones of motherhood and watching Nina become frustrated with her own daughter gives Leda permission to start forgiving herself for her failings.
"The Lost Daughter" is a genuinely powerful experience and an absolute showstopper for Olivia Colman, who manages to give Leda so much internal life and subtext that when this two-hour movie ends, it feels like turning the last page on a novel you've been reading for weeks. Even at its darkest, there's still enough hope and levity to the film to keep it from feeling like a misery parade. Instead, it's a deeply fascinating character study that uses subtlety to tell its story and ever so gently break your heart. The ambiguity of the ending is like the open-mindedness of life: that even as we search for all the answers in order to attach a period to a part of our history, sometimes the best we can hope for is an ellipsis.
The Lost Daughter
Dir. Maggie Gyllenhaal
Now Streaming on Netflix