In the past couple of years, Netflix has cemented themselves as one of the most prolific generators of award-winning content due to the constant frequency of high-profile projects they release. Due to this high frequency of movies, some are inevitably bound to be lacking in quality compared to the major hits. Maggie Gyllenhaal’s THE LOST DAUGHTER, despite the efforts of the talented people involved, seems to be a case of a movie that inherently generates buzz among critics, but never has the thematic punch seen in other worthy films. The film feels stuck in the first 30 minutes, so by the conclusion the character arcs and themes never quite come together in the way the movie intends. However, if for nothing else, THE LOST DAUGHTER is a fantastic showcase of great acting from the two leads: Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley.
The film centers around Leda (Colman), a woman who arrives on a small resort island to take a quiet vacation. The audience knows very little about her as the movie begins, and much about her is assumed by the way she treats others and keeps to herself while on this vacation. This is one respect where the movie succeeds: the audience feels up-close-and-personal to Leda and the film shows the struggles of her past well through the small actions of the character. However, this may be due to Colman’s fantastic performance more than the script or the direction, so because of the good casting this aspect of the film starts out strong. As Leda’s stay continues, she begins to become enamored by the life of a large family, specifically a younger woman named Nina (Dakota Johnson) and her small child. The experiences she sees Nina deal with remind Leda of her past, shown through flashbacks with Buckley playing the younger version of the character, and this peaceful vacation becomes a reliving of her past mistakes.
Obviously, Colman is one of the highlights of THE LOST DAUGHTER, which is a given at this point since she hasn’t put in a bad performance in memory. However, the performance that steals the movie is Buckley, who must not only carry the emotional weight of every flashback scene, but who alters her mannerisms impressively to become a younger version of Colman. The whole ensemble here puts in good work, although some, like Johnson and Ed Harris as the caretaker of the home Leda stays in, are wasted with either too little screen time or unfulfilling character arcs. This speaks to a larger problem first time director/writer Gyllenhaal has with her characters in THE LOST DAUGHTER in that the progressions lack thematic relevance to the film’s topics and overall commentary. Thus, even though Colman and others do their best with the material, the script never gives their performances the meaning they require to truly succeed.
THE LOST DAUGHTER is never truly bad. In reality, it’s much the contrary — for a first feature Gyllenhaal proves that she has the directing talent to craft a personal, interesting slow-burn drama and adapt a rich novel with critical acclaim. Her screenwriting here is less impressive, with the powerful themes about the responsibility of parenthood heading nowhere by the end of the film. The script and the novel clearly deal with a loaded subject and have plenty to say, yet by the end no pointed commentary is made that generates empathy for mothers and their great responsibility. In fact, the film ends up doing quite the opposite — making viewers believe that women should be better parents than they are by portraying a character that is at times nonsensically flawed. Colman’s character does so many questionable things that one wonders whether someone like her should be a parent at all, which was clearly not the message Gyllenhaal was intending to deliver.
The complexity of the characters in THE LOST DAUGHTER is what many hold to be its greatest strength, yet the only complex character in this ensemble seems to be Leda, and even then the negative traits of the character get in the way of any possible lesson to be learned. Parenting is difficult and sometimes it can get so hard that a mother can find herself feeling disdain towards her children. This difficult message is one worth pondering over, and Gyllenhaal’s examination of this is a worthy one even if it contradicts itself at times. The performances here (Buckley and Colman especially) deserve the acclaim they could potentially receive, and Gyllenhaal proves to be a worthy director who will retain audiences’ attention once her next film releases. THE LOST DAUGHTER just cannot seem to pull its themes together by the end and feels like an empty and confusing experience without an emotional payoff that will not keep the film in viewers’ minds after watching.