Reading Time: 5 minutes

Rating: 3 out of 5.

There is a moment in The Lost Daughter where a doll that has fallen into the sea is retrieved. I won’t spoil how, or by whom. The doll lays on the floor of a bathroom, and a sea worm crawls out of its mouth. At that moment, I knew exactly what film I was watching.

The Lost Daughter is all I hear talked about in my social circles. It’s spoken of quietly, like it’s a shameful subject. “Can you believe what type of mother she is?

The film revolves around Olivia Colman’s character Leda, a poetry professor vacationing by herself in Greece. She is unhappy and desperately wants to be left alone. Unfortunately, her resort is overrun by a family of indiscernible origin. This movie was based on a book by Elena Ferrante and directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal. Either one or both has been on a vacation where the other guests act this way, because the veracity of the scenes made my blood boil.

I once went on a Carnival New Year’s cruise with my family. Drunk passengers swore at an on-deck screening of Cars 3. The best food on the trip was Guy Fieri’s Burger Stop (you have to get the burgers with the donkey sauce. The donkey sauce is key). As I sat in the ship’s library, typing on my computer, trying to get some peace, a group of teenagers came in, humped the floor, said “fuck”, and ran past my computer asking “I wonder if that dude is on the hub!” (By “hub” they meant Pornhub. The joke was on them. I was on Youporn.)

Lines at a Guy Fieri Burger Joint on a Carnival Cruise
This will be my first burger reference. Courtesy of Carnival Cruise Lines.

So I understand the visceral rage that Olivia Colman’s character feels as this monstrously large family and their cackling spawn invade her silence. But amongst the family, she sees a young mother, Nina, played by Dakota Johnson. She’s having a tough time with her daughter and is openly arguing with her husband. The image of this young woman on a beach sparks something in Leda, and for the rest of the film, we dip back and forth between present Leda and past Leda, getting brief glimpses at her life as a working mother. She begins to insert herself into the family’s life as they run into each other across the small island. She grows closer to Nina in a way that becomes uncomfortable. We sense impending doom.

This is not the first film to deal with the topic of mothers not wanting to be mothers. Of living with regret at the children they’ve had. The best of these is a film called We Need to Talk About Kevin, directed by Lynne Ramsay.

If you were to read reviews of The Lost Daughter, you’ll likely see the same phrase reappear over and over.

“Closely observed.”

Peter Sarsgaard and Jessi Buckley get close.
Courtesy of Netflix.

The characters in this film are “closely observed”, as in, the camera flits close to them during intense moments, scrutinizes their behavior, picks at their ticks and tells. Maggie Gyllenhaal, in her directorial debut, showcases an affinity for the tiny affects of an actor’s performance. And she has amazing actors to work with—Olivia Colman, Ed Harris, Dakota Johnson. But the star turn here comes from Jessie Buckley. I’ve seen her do excellent supporting work in fantastic dramas (Chernobyl) and I’ve seen her command an entire, convoluted, dense film (I’m Thinking of Ending Things). Here she is as excellent as she has ever been.

And this is where I stumble in my praise of The Lost Daughter. This film should have everything I desire in a film. A protagonist who wants to be left alone? Check. Existential dread in a foreign country? Absolutely. Complex characterizations around a woman’s desire to raise a family? Got it.

Yet as I watched this film, two films played in my head. The first was The Lost Daughter, directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal, the second was the aforementioned We Need to Talk About Kevin, directed by Lynne Ramsay. And I know which film I more wanted to see.

Leda and Nina share a moment while hat shopping.
Courtesy of Netflix.

Is that a fair assessment of any piece of art? That it isn’t another piece of art? The Lost Daughter is affecting. It will make you feel. But all its parts feel (lovingly) taken from another film, and done at around 85%. I often have a problem with stakes in a film and the same is true of The Lost Daughter. I didn’t ever believe Leda was in danger, and if she was, I didn’t care.

Whereas in We Need to Talk About Kevin, I felt every emotion Tilda Swinton did. She too has a “difficult” relationship with a child, and at times wishes she wasn’t a mother. But the depth of her character, and the pain she feels even as she sees what her son is becoming, is mesmerizing. In The Lost Daughter, you do feel for Olivia Colman’s character. But you never imagine yourself in her place. That is not the case in We Need to Talk About Kevin.

I make comparisons between these two films because they use such a similar filmic language I could see them being a Criterion Double Feature one day. And I keep coming back to the image of the doll with the serpent crawling out of its mouth. This is a Lynne Ramsay shot if I have ever seen one. And yet it’s not. It’s not framed with the same feeling. It’s not shot as if it were something accidentally stumbled upon on set, as so much of Lynne Ramsay’s imagery seems to be. Instead, it’s written in big, bold letters “THIS IS A METAPHOR“. I will not spoil it, but even the endings of these two films are shades of one another.

But again, is that a problem? Being compared to Lynne Ramsay as a first-time director is a true feat. However, Shack Shake is unsatisfying when you really want In-N-Out (if you have good taste in burgers, this metaphor works). The complexities of a mother not wanting her children is fascinating. Closely observed films make us more aware of the intricacies of human beings. Both of these films accomplish that.

But only one of the films I’ve talked about feels like a living, breathing piece of art that builds to an emotional catharsis that has never left my memory. The other is “closely observed”. I have my preference.

Casey Karaman is a writer, performer, improviser, and teacher who has worked with the Washington Improv Theater. He has performed in multiple theater productions, most recently in Second City's production...