“Children are a crushing responsibility,” says Leda (Olivia Colman) in the opening moments of “The Lost Daughter,” a new drama directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal now streaming on Netflix. She is sunny in her delivery of the line, but for Leda, the words have real weight. Based on a novel by Elena Ferrante and adapted for the screen by Gyllenhaal, this is an unsentimental tale of motherhood.
The film begins with 48-year-old literary professor Leda on a working vacation on a picturesque Greek Island. She is a self-described selfish person looking for some peace and quiet but between the attentions of caretaker Lyle (Ed Harris) and the chipper Irish student Will (Paul Mescal), she gets little of either.
Then there is Callie (Dagmara Domińczyk), a pregnant woman who demands Leda leave a spot on the beach so her family can spread out. “They’re bad people,” says a local.
Callie is annoying but Leda becomes transfixed by her sister Nina (Dakota Johnson), a mom struggling to parent her young daughter Elena (Athena Martin).
Leda becomes consumed by memories of her time raising her daughters Bianca and Martha. But they aren’t happy memories plucked from a baby book. Twenty years ago, she was an “unnatural mother” who cared more for her work and an extramarital affair with fellow academic Professor Hardy (Peter Sarsgaard) than her kids.
Flashing to-and-fro from present day to two decades past, where Leda is played by the great Jessie Buckley, the story fleshes out a portrait of a woman harboring deep regret for her past actions. “It’s like I’ve been trying not to explode,” Leda says, “and then I exploded.”
“The Lost Daughter” is a promising debut behind the camera for Gyllenhaal. She ably handles the parallel stories, past and present, bring them together to paint a full portrait of the complex character that is Leda. She is a very different person in the film’s two halves and Gyllenhaal allows us to follow along by keeping it simple. The story is rich and textured, and asks more questions than it answers, but it isn’t cluttered with unnecessary details. The film’s true gift is to trust the viewer with its characters, to treat them as flawed people without tarting up the story with unbelievable twists or turns. It is self-assured storytelling, buoyed by wonderful performances from Colman, Johnson and Buckley, who bring intelligence and, most importantly, humanity to characters who are not always likeable.