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by Kevin Fullam
How much do we compartmentalize our lives? When we're small, most of us can't envision our mothers as having any roles other than that of our chief caretaker. Careers? Passions? Not on the radar of a young child. Moms might be teachers/nurses/chefs rolled into one, but they scarcely exist in our minds outside of those boundaries.
Early on in The Lost Daughter, Leda Caruso (Olivia Colman) -- a 48-year-old professor on a "working holiday" at a resort town in Greece -- strikes up a conversation with visibly-pregnant Callie (Dagmara Domińczyk), and the subject turns to that of parenting.
Callie asks Leda an innocuous question about her memories of raising her two daughters (now adults), expecting a good-natured nostalgic response. Leda's reply? "Children are a crushing responsibility." And then she walks away. Full stop. Yikes.
Vacationing with Callie is Nina (Dakota Johnson), whose five-year-old daughter briefly goes missing, until located and safely returned by Leda. The experience triggers a series of flashbacks for Leda, as we start to understand just how "crushing" it was to her psyche to be a mother, decades earlier.
The memories come in snippets. The bickering with her young girls while saddled with professional responsibilities. The quiet envy when visited by a childless couple. (Well, not quite childless -- the male half of the couple admits that he has three sons, but "they live with their mother.")
And strongest of all, the longing Leda feels for a colleague (Peter Sarsgaard) she meets while out of town at an academic conference. The fellow professor tells Leda that, as the married party, she'll "have to make the first move." And she does.
There are no pretensions here, as Leda is fully cognizant of her own selfishness, and along the way, we suspect that something monumental happened between her and her children... but we're not sure exactly what. (Yes, there is an Act III reveal.)
Both Colman as present-day Leda and Jessie Buckley as her younger self are the engines that drive this film, and it's a testament to both performers that we can feel their anguish while simultaneously excoriating them for their shortcomings.
The Lost Daughter is a stellar directorial debut from Maggie Gyllenhaal, and while she adapted the screenplay from an Elena Ferrante novel, there's certainly the sense that Gyllenhaal -- with two children of her own -- is speaking from experience here. (Though if we're following that particular track, one can't help but also notice that she cast her real-life husband, Sarsgaard, as the academic paramour...)
How we feel about Leda will vary from viewer to viewer, but aren't the most interesting protagonists drawn in shades of gray?
The 2021 Chicago Critics Film Festival runs November 12th to November 14th. Follow @chicagocritics for updates!
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