Over the past decade or so, and for the COVID years especially, I’ve noticed a lot of friends expressing a desire for characters of the sweet and sympathetic sort. Many of them have experienced enough anxiety of late that it’s become difficult to willingly reach out to works of art that deal in strife, misanthropy and bad decisions. As an avid consumer of the humanist works of Richard Linklater, Mike Mills, and Greta Gerwig, it’s a sentiment I fully understand. I’ve taken deep, soul-healing solace from drinking from the fountains of kindness offered by shows like Ted Lasso and Steven Universe, and films like A Beautiful Day In the Neighborhood and Paddington 2. But like some cinema nutritionist, I feel it is my duty to urge all of you to continue to seek out film experiences, and specifically characters, who are abrasive and unsympathetic. I feel it is deeply healthy to include some unlikeable people and upsetting experiences as part of your cultural diet. Think of it as cinematic roughage, if you will. If art offers us the chance to gaze into a kind of mirror that reflects parts of ourselves while also allowing us to see facets and flaws we would want to avoid, then there’s a huge value in having that mirror be as expansive as possible. It should show us not just our best or most aspirational selves but the darker places human beings can go too. We should not only look into the mirror to see how we should be, but to remind ourselves of the more uncomfortable truths of what we can become at our most selfish, proud, or irrational. There’s also the fact, evidenced by shows like Succession and films like the Safdie Brothers’ Good Time and Uncut Gems, that watching deeply toxic people fuck up and squirm can be a lot of smart fun in the right hands. In those aforementioned art works, watching seedy, short-sighted and greedy fools stumble about can feel like riding a rollercoaster, a vicarious scream through some of the most thrillingly bad decision-making imaginable. But what of those of us who want to get the complex joys of watching not entirely sympathetic characters at a less hectic, punishing pace? What about those of us who just want to spend a relaxing time floating along in the Lazy (or Greedy, or Selfish) River? In 2021, celebrated actress and sterling debut director Maggie Gyllenhall had you covered on that front. Her phenomenal freshmen outing, The Lost Daughter, offered up all the giddy, perverse delights of watching prickly characters flail about, but at a more hypnotic, soulful pace. Gyllenhall’s adaptation of the novel by felt like reading a great book in all the right ways; cinematic but carried along by a sophisticated current of dialogue. Her perceptive, often sorrowful look at a woman who puts herself first and foremost has all the spicy fun of wrestling with an unlikeable (or at the very least frustrating) character, just with its own distinctively literary flavor. To fellow fans of wholesome cinema who want to branch out into something just a bit more acidic, The Lost Daughter is like a bracing shot of very strong limoncello. It should make your lips pucker and make the blood rush to your head, but without leaving you hungover and useless the next day.
What makes The Lost Daughter such a tingly, unnerving experience is its willingness to look candidly at a character archetype that has too often been rendered in black and white. The role of the mother is one that bears a tremendous burden in our society. Our culture has longed preferred its screen and page mothers to be shiny and lacking in warts. Angelic, loving, self-sacrificing, and defined by their unflagging desire to nurture their children and husbands. When mothers don’t meet these needs, they have tended to fall onto the other end of the dichotomy: wicked stepmothers, deadbeat parents, and shrill stage moms. The Lost Daughter is about neither of those two opposing character types. It is about a woman somewhere in between. Certainly not a good mother but maybe not an abysmal one either. We meet Leda (a dependably spectacular Olivia Colman in what could be her best screen performance), a 48-year professor and celebrated academic, arriving on a remote Greek island. She is ready to begin a blessedly solitary vacation there but that humble goal is continually frustrated by the existence of other human beings.. What we pick up almost instantly is that Leda is not one to small talk with strangers. She is politely terse with Lyle (a welcome and very strong Ed Harris), the groundskeeper tasked with taking care of the islands’ apartments, in spite of his best efforts to break through her superficial veneer. She seems slightly put off whenever the handsome Irish cabana boy walks up to her beachside chaise lounge to ask if she needs anything. And she is completely beside herself (in a flummoxed, quietly seething British way) when an entire large family of boorish Italian tourists crash the very beach resort she has chosen as an ideal hideaway from the world. Leda is the type of person whose eyes are forever looking for the quickest way to exit a conversation; the type of person who is maybe only entirely themselves when they are alone. The Lost Daughter is already a fascinating, nuanced portrait of a misanthropic introvert trying to adapt to a peaceful holiday gone awry before we learn about Leda’s past relationship with her ex-husband and children. Through flashbacks to Leda in her late twenties (played excellently by meteorically ascending star Jessie Buckley), when she was married with two young daughters, we get the story of how Leda tried and, in some respects, failed to make it as a mother. That’s not to say Leda completely abandoned her children. In the present, we see her occasionally talk amicably to her two daughters, now in their twenties, on the phone and there seems to be a nice enough conversational relationship between them. But we witness a chapter in Leda’s life in which a maternal role that she not so quietly resented came into conflict for a chance to become a luminary in her field (translating classic poetry into Italian) and she did not make the classic, selflessly maternal choice. It is a choice that clearly gave her the life she wanted and she did get to reconnect with her children eventually, but Colman brilliantly reveals how those past choices weigh on her. The weight almost becomes too much to bear when that brash, raucous group of Italians (the perfect family-oriented foil to Leda’s cool independence) stampedes into town with kids in tow. Leda ends up mixed up in some tricky business with a young mother (Dakota Johnson, as good as she’s ever been) and her daughter, a stolen baby doll, and an overbearing sister who seems keen on knowing why Leda hasn’t brought her own children on vacation. What Gyllenhall has made is a disorienting but soulful meditation on the heavy yoke of motherhood, the familial expectations women shoulder, and the bittersweet choices people must make in determining what personal success means to us. It’s a sorrowful but also liberated torch duet between one woman’s present and past. In a society that expects its mothers to give up everything for the greater good of their children and men, it’s mainly about a woman blessed and cursed with the inability to not look after herself. It’s imbued with a strong feminist spirit, but it also frequently leaves all of Leda’s prickly narcissism to flap naked in the breeze. Whether strong-willed or submissive, self-promoting or subservient to the will of others, everybody has to live in the shadow of their past.