We probably all long for that innocent beach read we can get lost in. A slow roll of events relishing in meager human drama over fantasy or action. A worthwhile read we get invested into, often without even realizing we are. And yet, that element won’t always equate to that book, making for acceptable cinematic fodder. Especially if the source involves a beach vacation. Maggie Gyllenhaal’s spin on The Lost Daughter, previously a best-seller by Elena Ferrante, invokes some gentle dreaminess with its quest for familial closure. At the same time, it cannot quite escape its sleep-inducing trap, doing itself in before those thematic claws can commit to a firm grip.
That may not be an entirely terrible thing, one’s momentum overreaching. Until it is, of course. And in the case of Gyllenhaal’s heroine, the perplexed Leda Caruso (Olivia Colman), she may have bitten off a little more than manageable. She’s merely looking to unwind, clear her head on a “working vacation” on a nondescript Greek island. At home, she’s a college English professor, a widower still coming to terms with a loss and a lack of connectivity with two young adult daughters. Her mind runs as skittish as Pandora’s Box when she finds herself distracted. And perhaps a trifle fixated on a fellow vacationer. Meeting youthful mother Nina (Dakota Johnson) and kid Elena (Athena Martin) leaves quite an impression. Although, not the most confident sort. She sees Elena, and suddenly a litany of buried memories makes a sudden reappearance.
The biggest keyword in Gyllenhaal’s dictionary is trauma, coupled with a sense of missed opportunities. She frames Leda as a rather imperfect mother, seen in flashbacks (as played with deliberate ferocity by Jessie Buckley) as prone to temper and delirium toward her daughters. She was far from ready to mother efficiently, and that shows on all levels. Meeting Nina under rather tense circumstances, arguing over chair territory on an adjacent beach, and fueled by Elena losing a cherished toy, their friendship only reminds Leda of what went wrong and could’ve been. In a show of restraint, it’s handled without necessarily playing the prophecy card.
What Gyllenhaal can neither predict nor prevent is a sense of ethereal milling about as Leda’s duality of pride and shame grows. Colman’s very wayward presence alone poses an acerbic resentment toward the world masked by a false smile and a chipper ego complex. She worms through the contradictions of middle age, whilst Buckley answers the same character’s inner flaws. The kind that’s persistently bogged down by sleep deprivation and mild hysteria. Johnson, on the other hand, is the mediator, mixing caution and regret like it were one. Combine the three, and it helps to lift Gyllenhaal’s sails, tightening her focus.
That might only be a small concession knowing Lost Daughter’s relaxed demeanor. In simplest terms, it left me rather aimless. Something tells me Ferrante’s manuscript might’ve possessed an easier challenge of keeping everyone’s emotions in check. Gyllenhaal is perhaps just as lost as the viewer is in connecting all these carefully placed dots and uncovering both Leda’s psyche and Nina’s adjunct role in cracking the jaded mother’s shell. Not so much the fragile egg to a pan as one would anticipate, but more hard-boiled, settling comfortably in a pot to dwell on their inadequacies.
Colman thrives well in that state, boiling in her pain, before cooling off on her unconventional search for catharsis, a second chance for love and admiration. It’s another satisfactory performance working toward her broad range. While Buckley responds as the utter opposite, unable to appreciate what would be lost to time in her fleeting moments of workaholism. Those pathways, building two sides of the same problematic individual, are quick to spot, dense in their structure, but rather difficult to make sense of. Floating around from one thread to another, we only lose more of that momentum over time. Almost to the point where we bordered on confusion. Visual and auditory strengths remain unaffected by these story missteps, particularly Helene Louvart’s (Never Rarely Sometimes Always) sweeping, postcard-worthy camera work, and composer Dickon Hinchliffe (Leave No Trace) guitar-centric score mirroring the innocence of any number of 70s road trip comedies.
The idea of Leda’s character progression, shown from more than one angle (Johnson’s beacon of concern the third) is perhaps the lone saving grace in Gyllenhaal’s bag of tricks I could take solace in. Linking up with her struggles, and Colman’s portrayal requires a bit of effort to slice past that virtue of distraction. That may not have worked too well upon this viewing, the wider at-home streaming audience could fare better. But for me, The Lost Daughter lives up to part of its title a bit too literally. While it makes quick work of acknowledging the known, and unknown, fractures of motherhood, it couldn’t quite accomplish such in a cohesive manner. The experience, all told, left me slighted even with closure all but assured. Time will tell whether that might still be the case, or if like our protagonist, there’s the possible hope for renewal. (C+; 3/5 Horns Up!)
The Lost Daughter opens in limited release December 17, streaming on Netflix December 31; rated R for sexual content/nudity and language; 121 minutes.