I don’t know what I was expecting from the writing/producing/directing debut of Maggie Gyllenhaal, but it sure wasn’t whatever the hell this is.

The Lost Daughter stars Olivia Coleman, but it’s Jessie Buckley who’s the real MVP here. They’ve both got roughly equal screen time, as the film flips back and forth between time periods, and the both of them play the same character at different ages. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Coleman and Buckley play Leda Caruso, a professor of Italian literature who’s taking a working holiday on a remote island off the coast of… Greece. I suppose that’s close enough, we’ll go with it. Anyway, Leda’s peaceful vacation in Mediterranean paradise is continually disrupted by a large family of wealthy New York assholes who own a large swath of property on this island. (Including the apartment that Leda is renting, incidentally.)

Though Leda takes an immediate dislike to pretty much everyone in this family of douchebags, she is strangely fond of Nina (Dakota Johnson), a young woman with a three-year-old daughter named Elena (Athena Martin). Indeed, as the plot unfolds across two simultaneous timelines, we watch as Nina apparently makes many of the same mistakes that Leda made in raising her own two young daughters (played in flashback by Robyn Elwell and Ellie Blake). The two inevitably meet up as Elena gets herself lost, and Leda is able to get the child back safely to her mother.

But in the process of getting lost, Elena misplaced her favorite doll and she spends the next several days beside herself with grief over it. Except that the doll wasn’t really misplaced, it was stolen. By Leda. Who’s keeping it hidden to herself. Because it apparently reminds Leda of a doll that she had in her youth before handing it down to her eldest daughter.

To repeat, this is the central crisis of the film: A woman stole a child’s doll for no reason whatsoever. And just like that, the film is irreparably broken.

To be entirely clear, it’s obvious that this is a movie about our deep-seated need for attention and all the irrational, even hurtful things we’ll do to get it. Children do things they know for a fact to be selfish and wrong, just so people will be mad enough to take notice of them, and a great many adults never grow out of that phase. It’s a perfectly valid artistic statement to make. The only trouble is that between the irrational woman who stole a young girl’s doll, and the family loaded with self-centered wealthy assholes, we’ve got NOBODY in this entire movie who’s worth emotionally investing in. What’s worse, we’re left with a plot that has zero stakes, a conflict that begins and continues for no reason whatsoever, and themes that fall completely flat without empathetic characters to convey them.

It also doesn’t help that Lady Bird was a recent movie that discussed our irrational need for attention, and did so in much greater detail and with far more heart. Hell, if you want a movie about the physical, mental, emotional toll that motherhood takes, we’ve already got Tully, We Need to Talk About Kevin, the aforementioned Lady Bird, or even freaking Titane. All of those recent movies went into these and/or similar themes with more heart, more intelligence, and more eloquence, all more distinctly memorable and unique than this picture, with more fleshed-out and sympathetic characters in the bargain.

In all fairness, the cast is wonderful. Of course Olivia Coleman is a delight, but I honestly think that Jessie Buckley deserves more credit for holding her own and keeping pace with the more seasoned actor, crafting a seamless transition between the two different ages of the same character.

Ed Harris shows up for a delightful supporting turn as a potential love interest, right up until the character reveals that his first-born son is older than Leda. And he’s still hitting on her. Gross.

Elsewhere, Dakota Johnson is playing well within her comfort zone as the tortured beautiful young mother whose life may not be as perfect as she pretends it is. I might add that Peter Sarsgaard — Gyllenhaal’s husband and a highly accomplished actor in his own right — was obligingly given a small yet crucial and memorable supporting role.

Gyllenhaal proves herself to be a remarkably savvy director and she’s got a wonderful cast to work with, so what went wrong here? At a guess, I’d say this goes all the way back to the original novel, written by Elena Ferrante. Not that I’ve read the book, but this could easily be one of those cases in which the characters’ pathos and emotional turmoil works better on the written page. This has all the earmarks of a story that falls apart unless we can crawl inside the characters’ heads as only a novel can allow. Some books were simply never meant to be adapted into other media.

With its leaden pacing, broken premise, and absence of a single likeable and/or interesting character worth following, The Lost Daughter is dead on arrival. The cast is wonderful, but all of these actors (except for Jessie Buckley, who totally deserves more work ASAP) have turned in better performances elsewhere. I appreciate the artistic statements that the film is trying to make, but so many other, better recent movies (albeit underappreciated ones) have made these same statements in far more potent ways. I want to like Maggie Gyllenhaal as a director — after spending her entire adult life in showbiz, God knows she’s earned the right to direct her own movie by now — and she does show potential here, I just hope she finds a better story to direct with her next effort.

The bottom line is that I have an extremely difficult time recommending a film in which the protagonist knowingly and freely causes her own problems, making life miserable for everyone else with no reason at all. Sorry, but I can’t sign off on this.

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