I shouldn’t really admit or do this, but I’m honest to a fault and in my course of reviewing films, I’ve sometimes been guilty of relying on idioms to convey messages that are hard for me to articulate. One of my favorites is saying that a movie is “all style, no substance,” sometimes simplified to “all show no go.” So believe me when I say I’m at a loss for words with “The Lost Daughter” because what happens when a movie has a distinct entrancing style and a lot of substance to gnaw on, but still falls short.
Leda (Coleman) is a college professor taking the summer off in Greece. She keeps to herself on the beach, in her rented apartment and at the various locations where she encounters other people, but something is off. She smiles and makes small talk, but seems disinterested in conversation, much less maintaining them with jabber boxes she encounters at a nearby resort where families and single people mingle. Without narration or guidance from Leda, “Lost Daughter” decides to slowly reveal to us what’s wrong by dipping back in time to when Leda was a young mother of two, while working on her academia. These flashbacks act as a slow burn as we try to figure out what happened in Leda’s life to lead her to this point in time in Greece where she’s alone and bitter on vacation.
So what secrets is Leda keeping? She’s not telling and honestly that’s one of the film’s motifs. Most characters throughout the film don’t talk about their problems, secrets or skeletons in the closet even though we know they are there. They’re hinted at when someone asks an innocent question and the person simply refuses while looking into the distance. The answer is etched across their face, in their unfurrowed brows or phony smiles. In a lot of ways, the film plays with our expectations. In films like this, we suspect the worst, but the worst doesn’t come nor has it happened in the flashbacks. Is the worst yet to come? Is the worst a mirage and we’re simply seeing a manifestation of youthful fantasies? We don’t know and we’ll never know as the credits begin to roll. That is, unless the worst is somewhere in between.
It’s difficult to talk about the core of this film without revealing the big theme of the film, which is motherhood. Motherhood is far from glorified in this film. In fact, anyone below the age of 30 in this film doesn’t have a kid and is obnoxious, horny, or self-centered. Meanwhile, all the adults that are with kids seem miserable while the adults without kids anymore seem chipper. Through flashbacks, we see that Leda was probably someone who was going to be…obnoxious, horny or self-centered, but instead she had to grow up quickly with two daughters.
Instead of reveling in her youth, she was dealt the burden of motherhood; and yes I say burden because this film makes motherhood look like a nightmarish triathlon through the lava pits of hell. The crux of this film does come down to parenting because every character fits into parenting somehow, whether they are a parent, have their parents with them, or have been a parent in some regard. However, the film explores motherhood through one key element, while at the same time raising several other issues about how we view traditionally binary roles in parenting, i.e. a mother and father. It’s not about single parents, parenting styles or any of that. It’s about something specific that I would wager is negatively viewed in the public, but that’s about as much as I’ll say.
So why can’t I recommend this movie even though I clearly would love to dissect it in front of you like a high school biology teacher whipping out the ceremonial frog to cut open? It’s difficult because there’s a lot of things I like about this film, specifically the ambiguity that allows us to find our own meaning, as well as the acting, the cinematography and nearly every technical aspect. Even the use of jazz music in the film symbolizes the frantic nature of parenting and how much life becomes improvisation when crotch goblins enter the mix. There’s a level of frustration watching unsure characters dancing around unsure topics about unsure history in an unsure setting. While that uncertainty adds to the delicious ambiguity of the film, we just kind of keep chewing on the mystery of it all and by the end we’re not necessarily left with anything nourishing. It doesn’t help that the film seems content with dragging out unnecessary scenes, making things that are abundantly clear, even more clear in a repetitive fashion; making the film feel like it’s four hours instead of two.
For perspective on all of this, because I feel like everyone will view this film’s messaging differently, I am a man. I can never be a mother. I also don’t have kids so I don’t really fully comprehend the parenting angle even though I have plenty of friends and family with kids and understand the struggles. It’s one thing to understand where someone is coming from, but it’s another thing to relate in such a ubiquitous way that people from all walks of life can relate with you on an emotional level. That’s why “The Lost Daughter” just doesn’t click for me. It’s not that I don’t understand “The Lost Daughter,” it’s that it seems lost on what it wants to tell me.