Mothering Daughters: On “The Lost Daughter”

Director Maggie Gyllenhaal captures memorable nuances of motherhood in The Lost Daughter, streaming on Netflix now. The film, based on Elena Ferrante’s 2006 novel, The Lost Daughter, stars Olivia Colman as Leda, the main character.

I liked Colman as Queen Elizabeth II in The Crown, the dramatic series about the British monarch, also on Netflix. I found much more to enjoy about her delightful acting in The Lost Daughter.

Leda is an academic who needs quiet to research and write while vacationing. To this end, she clashes with the family of Nina, a young mother.

The setting is on a beach. Water, where all life on earth began, is a sub-theme of the film.

For reasons that will become clear, Leda cannot take her eyes off Nina and her young daughter. Dakota Johnson speaks volumes with her eyes and face as she portrays Nina.

Somewhat like Leda a generation earlier, Nina is overwhelmed with the 24/7 labor of child rearing. The daughters of Leda and Nina, separated by place and time, have similar personality characteristics.

A shorthand description of these three young girls is that they are emotionally demanding. Therein lies a core conflict that propels the narrative of The Lost Daughter.

The film by first-time director and seasoned actor Gyllenhaal speaks to women’s social role as providers of reproductive labor services to children and adult males. The difficulties of this social relationship unfolds through the interior thoughts of Leda.

As young mothers, Leda and Nina handle the emotional stress of their lives as household caregivers in part through promiscuity. Casual sex dulls the young mothers’ painful lives as human beings living under a patriarchal order of possessive individualism.

The Lost Daughter deploys flashbacks of Leda’s life to draw the viewer into her turmoil. This is an effective technique to tell a tale of distress, past and present.

As Leda lives in the present, she recall past trauma involving her daughter. She takes a step forward then steps backward.

Seeing the interior thoughts of Leda looking backward works if for no other reason than it resembles our lived experiences. Locked into our current experiences, we travel away from our youth as days turn into months, years and decades.

The past, as author William Faulkner observed, is never past but informs the present in big and small ways. In excruciating detail, we see the daily and hourly challenges of the young Leda mothering with scant help while trying to pursue an academic career.

Meanwhile, we see the older Leda recalling that trying time with no small measure of regret. Who among us can say, honestly, we are free from such thoughts of past hurt, real and imagined?

To use an American football metaphor, Leda, like viewers, are Monday morning quarterbacks after a Sunday game. That is, we look back on what did (not) take place yesterday with the wisdom of experience that eluded us in our younger lives.

“Everybody Plays the Fool” as The Main Ingredient sang. Making mistakes is not the half of it though.

Leda has returned to a troubled past with her daughters so frequently, the process manifests itself with quite bizarre behavior towards a prized possession of Nina’s daughter. In short, without spoiling the plot, Leda is a rational professor who can and does act irrationally.

In the meantime, Ed Harris, the venerable character actor, sparkles as a seasoned blue-collar worker who takes an interest in Leda. She is not ready to reciprocate; though, they do rock it dancing to “Living on Prayer.”

As I see it, The Lost Daughter captures the structural limits of motherhood. Leda and Nina personally feel and think about this systemic feature of capitalism that, as feminist scholar Silvia Federici writes, is invisible and invaluable in Revolution at Point Zero (PM Press, 2nd ed. 2020).

Seth Sandronsky is a Sacramento journalist and member of the freelancers unit of the Pacific Media Workers Guild. Email