In the beginning of "The Lost Daughter," Olivia Coleman’s character Leda is late, but she’s almost there. Jaunty music plunks in the background while ocean waves dance in the sun, just out of frame. She’s on holiday in Greece. It’s a dream trip by any measure, except one can’t help but notice that the middle-aged Leda is traveling alone. And as viewers we wonder, is that accomplished or a little sad?
And we’re not the only ones with questions. Ed Harris plays a spry caretaker who heaves her book-laden baggage up the steps as he makes small talk.
“Are you a teacher?” he guesses.
“I’m a professor,” Leda replies with a nod.
This is the first time our heroine is underestimated, reduced to her most simplified possibility. (Later we learn that she lives “in Cambridge, just outside of Boston.”) While we’re noticing that she’s a woman, we’re curious: So, does she have kids? Where are they? Why hasn’t she brought them? In fact, every character she meets in town can’t resist the urge to ask.
Her cagey responses astound everyone. Every time.
Because the truth about Leda’s experience with motherhood is complicated. Yes, she’s the mother of two grown girls and yes, it was a rocky road with them. As a mother of four kids myself, I couldn’t stop wondering, how rocky can your road get and still allow you to be a “good mother”? And of course, what makes a good mother, anyway?
In Maggie Gyllenhaal’s breathtaking film, “The Lost Daughter,” based on the Elena Ferrante novel which Gyllenhaal adapted for the screen and directed, nearly every man we meet is an ambivalent father, and no one notices. Ed Harris? Check. Houseguests during a flashback? Check. Leda’s own father is never mentioned. And during one of the few times we see Leda’s husband with their daughters, he shoos them away because “It’s Columbia (University)!” on the phone. Even though their agreement is for him to take care of their kids on Sundays while Leda works on her own academic research. And it’s Sunday.
This movie version of the novel by the same name offers a surprising look at what makes motherhood so complicated. The sweetness, the longing, the boredom and the yearning to be stimulated, ambitious, even sexual. It’s all there, but we almost never hear about it.
“You usually see movies with a bad mother or a good mother,” Steven Colbert said recently in an interview with Gyllenhaal. “This is a story about love, but also one woman’s ambivalence toward her role as a mother. And you don’t see that very often.”
“I think that when we’re little, our survival depends on our parents, and maybe in particular our mothers, because they’re feeding us from their bodies,” Gyllanhaal replies. “Our fantasy is that they want nothing more than to take care of us.”
But it’s not just children who crave this fantasy version of motherhood, the one full of sun-dappled picnics, finger paints and grilled cheese sandwiches cut on the diagonal. Hasn’t the pandemic taught us that when push comes to shove, it’s women who are expected to give up their aspirations to be primary caretakers?
I had to shelve two major projects when our kids came home for remote school in 2020. In fact, because our wifi is so iffy, it was decided that I shouldn’t even turn my computer or phone on. Better to conserve bandwidth for what’s important: my husband’s job and our kids’ schooling. Good thing I went to college, I grumbled inwardly. Otherwise how would I know how to chaperone my six-year-old through first grade on a tablet?
I hated it.
But I couldn’t let that show. I signed up for this, didn’t I?
“This is the paper we’re going to present,” Leda’s older male advisor decides in a flashback to Leda’s earlier career. They’re at a conference full of the world’s most learned minds. He’s taken the lead and wants to focus on something he wrote previously. Cut to the keynote speaker mentioning Leda’s work by name.
This is the second time that she’s reduced to her simplest state, underling. But the truth is again, more complicated.
What happens when you’re a mother but also still a person with all the same wants and desires as everyone else? Do you act on those or push them down?
Back in Greece, Leda’s a 48-year-old woman. Alone (is she too invisible for anyone to love?). Eating ice cream (is there anything more innocent?) when she first spots the extended family who unfold upon the beach like a swarm of bees. Aunts, uncles and a pack of teenage boys swaggering and swearing through the beach. It’s like they own the beach, so imagine their surprise when she won’t provide the small talk they’re expecting.
She may be wearing a modest black bathing suit and a practical coverup, but Leda won’t submit to being pushed around by anyone. And this surprises everyone.
What happens when you’re a mother but also still a person with all the same wants and desires as everyone else? Do you act on those or push them down? That’s the central question throughout the movie—and in modern motherhood. Leda’s obsession with Dakota Johnson’s character, a nubile young mother with long, tanned limbs whose five-year-old is practically dripping from her arms in every scene, brings up memories of her own mothering.
“I’m not a natural mother,” Leda explains, after confessing to a shockingly childish deception. But are the rest of us? Parenting is so much more complex than most of us ever imagined, mostly because we come to it as grown kids whose only experience of parenting was on the receiving end. How would we know?
“There’s a part of us that can barely bear to acknowledge that parenthood, no matter what, includes ambivalence,” Gyllenhaal continues in the Colbert interview. “If it doesn’t fit into this very safe space that we’ve all agreed that we’re allowed to talk about, then they say something’s wrong with you. When in fact, how can you be a parent as anything other than a beginner?”
As the serpentine story unfolds, slowly revealing layer upon layer, motherhood never looked so complex—or terrifying. What if we were allowed to talk about all the darker aspects of motherhood? It feels like it’s time.