REVIEW: The Lost Daughter

Talented actress Maggie Gyllenhaal has stepped into new waters, with her writing and directing feature film debut, The Lost Daughter.  Netflix acquired distribution rights back in August, and the movie dropped onto their platform on December 31.  In the early years of Netflix original movies, it was rare to find an example of quality, especially as the platform started bombarding subscribers with films.  Over the past few years some really intriguing films have landed on the streaming service, and The Lost Daughter is one of the best from the past year.

The movie follows middle aged Leda (Olivia Coleman), who is on vacation in Greece.  On the surface, she is a normal woman who seems to be simply taking some time for herself.  As the film progresses, we start to understand that Leda has a great deal of emotional baggage.  This film really is an example of 'onion peeling,' as more and more layers of Leda are pulled back.  Ultimately, I was left wondering if she was actually one of the most selfish characters I had seen in years, completely lacking empathy and making decisions that only satisfy her.

While on vacation, Leda meets young mother Nina (Dakota Johnson) who is having troubles with her daughter and later admits she is depressed.  Leda seems to connect with her, and as Gyllenhaal uses flashbacks of a much younger Leda (played by Jessie Buckley) we see some similarities between the two.  The main difference is that Nina is a person with compassion, while Leda is revealed as a person whose own life trumped her responsibilities as a wife and mother.  She ends up abandoning her marriage and two young daughters, describing the experience as 'amazing.'

A lot of films that have unlikable leads establish early on that the characters aren't the best of people, but Maggie Gyllenhaal takes the slow burn approach.  Coleman and Buckley's performances are outstanding, and through them as a vehicle this is executed with great effect.  Through nuanced performances, the audience really can get a great understanding of Leda, with little expository dialogue being needed.

There are a great many examples where unlikeable characters don't work.  We need to see them as flawed, but we also need to actually desire for them to change.  There has to be something about the character that connects with us and keeps us interested in seeing where the story goes.  Sometimes there is no personal growth or arc, such as with Nightcrawler's Louis Bloom (coincidentally played by Maggie's brother Jake).  In cases like that, there is a grander message that is more important than the progression of the main character.  With The Lost Daughter, the developments of the film stay focused on the lead, and has us desiring to see growth and change.

If I can compare Leda with an example of an unlikeable character that didn't work, I would contrast it with Marla Grayson (Rosamund Pike) in Amazon Prime's I Care a Lot.  Grayson is a horrible person, which is fine.  The problem comes from how director J Blakeson is presenting her.  Throughout the film, I couldn't help but feel that Grayson was being depicted as a hero.  There was nothing at all that I liked about that character, and having her spotlighted as a proper protagonist felt tone deaf and detracted from me being able to connect with the story.

Gyllenhaal is an amazing actress, and The Lost Daughter shows that she is equally as good at writing and directing.  The story is compelling, the performances are amazing, and the use of flashbacks (which can sometimes scupper a film) are expertly used to inform us of Leda's past as well as who she truly is.  It is a nuanced tale, with an ending that feels earned and justified.  Movies like this give me hopes for what Netflix is acquiring, and I hope 2022 brings many more films like this.

Rating - 3.5 out of 4 stars