A Netflix Movie Echoing the Strain of Pandemic Parenting

The Lost Daughter is the rare film about a struggling mother that doesn’t excuse—or judge—her choices.

Jessie Buckley as Leda Caruso
Netflix / Charlie Le Maignan / The Atlantic

We’re nearly two years into the pandemic and parents are not okay. Variants have upended schooling. Tests are in short supply. And a work-life balance that disappeared in 2020 feels no closer to returning. It’s enough to make some mothers get together to just scream.

Few works of entertainment express the strains and contradictions of parenthood today like Netflix’s The Lost Daughter. The movie portrays a woman named Leda Caruso at two different points in her life: Olivia Colman is present-day Leda, a professor on holiday in Greece. And Jessie Buckley plays Leda two decades earlier, a mother with two young daughters who is struggling to balance parenting and her creative ambitions.

Adapted from the Elena Ferrante novel of the same name, The Lost Daughter weaves the two time periods into a blur of joy, stress, and regret. Colman’s Leda watches a young mother on the beach and thinks back to working in her apartment at 28 as her two girls cry for her attention. “I felt like I’d been trying not to explode, and then I exploded,” she admits. Unlike other recent works about “bad mothers,” The Lost Daughter doesn’t tell Leda’s story with judgment. It’s the rare film that understands the secret shame of motherhood.

When the director Maggie Gyllenhaal read the Ferrante novel, one line stuck with her: “I’m not a natural mother.” That painful disconnect—between what Leda wants and what she feels she should want—animates the film. The tension of that one sentence vibrates throughout Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut, echoing the expectations placed on mothers that have felt all the more impossible in 2022.

For an episode of The Atlantic’s culture podcast The Review, David Sims, Sophie Gilbert, and Shirley Li analyze The Lost Daughter. Is anyone a “natural mother”? How much does society expect women to sacrifice for their children? And what is it like to watch the film as a parent?

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The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity. It contains spoilers for The Lost Daughter.

David Sims: Netflix’s The Lost Daughter is set on a Greek island. It is an adaptation of an Elena Ferrante novel of the same name. It also is Maggie Gyllenhaal’s directorial debut. When it came out on Netflix in December after a brief theater release, it had a polarized reaction. The main central character is a mother, played by two different actors of two different ages: Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley. The film is an unflinching examination of motherhood, of parenthood. We’re two years into a pandemic that’s been hard on everyone. It’s been especially hard on parents. I just want to say: I am a fairly new parent and I saw this film right around when I got back to work after my parental leave, and it rattled me to my core. And obviously, that is a major thing to discuss about The Lost Daughter. What do you guys think of the film?

Sophie Gilbert: The discourse about the movie has been about confronting the unspoken truths about motherhood, about parenthood—I’ll say “motherhood” now, but I am acknowledging your experience too.

Sims: No, it’s specifically about motherhood.

Gilbert: The thing I took away is, it just makes clear that you can never escape your kids. You see Olivia Colman arrive on her Greek beach. Ed Harris is carrying her bags and she’s so carefree. She’s floating in the ocean! Paul Mescal is bringing her a Cornetto! All these dreams of post-pandemic life. And then she sees Nina, a mother on the beach played by Dakota Johnson, who has a young child [but] seems more interested in relaxing on the beach. No judgment from me. (Laughs.)

But it reminds Leda of her own children—and specifically the point she confesses toward the end of the movie: that she left them for three years to pursue her own creative, professional, and romantic dreams. So I’m curious what you made of it because, to me, it was just about how, once you have kids, there is no escape from them. Even mentally. Even briefly. They will always be with you, for better or for worse.

I would say the best parts of my day every day now are dropping my kids off and picking them up. Dropping them off because, finally, I have this space that I have craved to do my creative work. And then I just miss them all day so much that when I pick them up again, it’s a profound relief. It’s that duality. This yes and no. Missing things and not missing them. And what about yourselves?

Shirley Li: Well, I’m not a parent myself, but I am a huge Elena Ferrante fan. Like a lot of women, I think, I find the precision of her writing and the interior emotional dialogue so compelling. Every word always feels like it just strikes me in the core of my mind, but also my heart. So I walked into the screening kind of apprehensive. This movie is Maggie Gyllenhaal’s debut feature. I wondered if, because of her background, it was going to be a vehicle for showcasing performance over the emotional, raw material of Ferrante’s words.

But I walked away absolutely loving it. Not necessarily because I understood what it’s like to be a parent but because of the artistry of the film. It is one of those movies that lingers in your mind the way that Ferrante’s words linger. It’s so precise in its imagery. It understands that while time is linear, your thoughts and your emotions and your memories are not. It captures what’s so feverish about the novel. You walk out of the theater and continue to think about it. Then you can’t stop thinking about it, so the next thing you know, because of your job, you can reach out and ask if you can talk with Maggie Gyllenhaal about it, and then you end up thinking about it for a full month. So that’s where I am with it.

Sims: Early in the movie, Nina’s daughter goes missing. Her whole family is running around looking for her and I was like, Oh, is this going to be a lost-kid movie? The title is The Lost Daughter, obviously. But then Leda finds the kid, reunites her with the family, and all seems well. And then you find that Leda has stolen the girl’s doll and is secreting it away in this maddening bit of behavior that is wonderfully unexplained.

Gilbert: I love it. I love the doll. I love that Leda’s choice is just impossible to understand. She obviously has a lot of issues to deal with, maybe involving her parents. Shirley, you’ve read the book. Does it get into her family growing up more than the movie does?

Li: Yeah, the book dove a bit more into her relationship with her mother, but not in a way that overwhelms the story. I think Gyllenhaal made the right decision to excise a bit of that and be more restrained in drawing too many parallels.

Gilbert: Well, the reason why I love the doll so much is because I’ve seen this with my own kids. Dolls are how we learn to care for things. It’s very innate, this impulse to take care of things. My twins are 18 months old, and when they see these things, they pick them up and hug them. And you think about how Olivia Colman’s Leda almost seems to be trying to learn how to be a mother again through the doll, taking care of it and removing whatever is gross inside it. I just love the doll. Again, I’m not sure I fully understand it, but it is such a good symbol.

Sims: The inscrutable metaphor of the doll is good, partly because at first you’re like, Is this some scheme she’s playing where she will return the doll quickly and be the conquering hero again? Is it a way for her to further ingratiate herself? Is that Leda’s game? And then you realize that’s not at all her game. She doesn’t really have a game in the slightest. It’s more of a weird tension she’s creating, just stirring up all this stuff in her that she’s ruminating on. As the audience member, though, I started just tearing my hair out, being like, Give the doll back! What are you doing? Which I love. I love how much this fairly plot-light movie with fairly low stakes still put me on the edge of my seat.

I’m just digging my nails into my legs trying to figure out what is going on with this person. Then we cut to these flashbacks of Leda’s younger self played by Jessie Buckley, giving us more emotional shading. And those scenes I found similarly wrenching, especially as a new parent. It’s very discombobulating to see someone ignore a child. I feel like maybe before I became a parent, I would not have felt that way, but I sort of couldn’t believe what I was watching. And at the same time, it’s incredibly sympathetic.

It’s beautifully directed by Gyllenhaal. Very rattling. Very unsettled. As it should be. You’re in the head of someone struggling to hold on while these two kids cry and yell and crawl all over her.

Gilbert: I think one of the reasons the movie has been so talked about is the moment we’re in. Mothers are living their own version of Jessie Buckley flashbacks. We’re home and we’re trying to work.

I mean, everyone has experienced tremendous amounts of pressure and strain in the pandemic, but COVID-19 has made it so transparent how parenting is built on this very flimsy foundation and how easily it can just fall apart underneath you. Those scenes of Jessie Buckley with her headphones on while her daughter’s crying and she’s yelling at her husband … you want to tell her to take care of her child. But also, I hear it.

Li: Right, that is how it works. Neither the mother nor the daughter is wrong. That’s almost the contract you’ve signed. Speaking as a nonparent. (Laughs.)

Gilbert: No, that’s it. (Laughs.) Shirley, you interviewed Maggie Gyllenhaal about this film, and I was wondering what she thought about adapting the book by using two different actors as the lead character.

Li: The core of what I wanted to find out from her was how she took the language of Ferrante and brought it to screen. When she thought about casting Jessie Buckley and Olivia Colman, Gyllenhaal wondered if it was the wrong choice to kind of create two films in one. There’s the current Leda on the beach and then flashback Leda, whereas in the novel, it’s all jumbled together. There aren’t clear-cut flashbacks or a separate timeline. It’s just a cascade of thoughts and feelings. And that’s how people’s minds work.

What was interesting is that she didn’t need the actors to talk to one another. At one point, Olivia Colman was curious about what Jessie Buckley was doing in her part of the film, so she watched a scene and decided not to watch anymore. They’re playing the same character, but it actually feels more natural that you wouldn’t be able to access your previous self so directly. And it is absolutely believable that a woman would transform in 20 years. So besides making sure they had the same basic accent, Gyllenhaal let them make their own choices about the character.

Gilbert: I thought it was really extraordinary how well they did seem like different eras of the same person. And accent is a large part of it. I am such a Jessie Buckley fan, and obviously everyone is an Olivia Colman fan, but they just function so well independently playing this woman processing what she’s done in her life—how it’s gone wrong, how it’s gone right.

Sims: This would be a different and less interesting movie if it was about a person who abandoned her family, feels bad about it, but never saw them again, right? But that’s not what this is about. This is about someone who did leave their family, returned to the family, and now knows you can never really shut the door on it. She misses her kids. She wishes her kids thought about her more. And she wishes she was more connected to them. But she also knows how difficult and overwhelming being a parent was. And she knows she’s sometimes a selfish person, as she says.

This is not a morality tale. It’s more a swirl of feelings that are unresolved, decades later bubbling up as she watches this tableau play out in front of her. It’s really, really good. And I know when this film dropped on Netflix, it provoked some pretty polarizing reactions. Which is the thing with Netflix: Your film can be pretty widely seen with the touch of a button. But this is not a film with easy answers or an ending that feels resolved. But that’s what’s so impressive about it, I think.

Gilbert: It reminded me of that scene toward the end of the last season of Succession, when Caroline Collingwood is having it out with Shiv at her bachelorette party and she says, “Some people just aren’t made to be mothers.” It’s a version of Leda’s “I’m not a natural mother,” and it kind of strikes Shiv to her core, not because she doesn’t know this about her mother but because she wonders what it means for her. In that moment, I think Shiv wonders if she doesn't have that trait either. It’s just so rich, this thread of mothers and daughters. And no one is making a movie about a father who leaves his kids. Or maybe they are, but it’s not carrying the weight of all this emotional baggage.

Li: Yeah, a mother leaving her children is still considered the worst thing you could possibly do. The unforgivable sin. You see fathers leave all the time in filmed entertainment. Deadbeat dads leave and then return, and it’s just kind of accepted as part of the tableau of a given family.

I think part of why this film also sparked such discourse is because it came in the middle of a lot of different projects wrestling with this question. But I think The Lost Daughter is the one that is the most effective, and the one that feels most true. I’ve seen critics compare it to the mother played by Jessica Chastain in Scenes From a Marriage, saying there are many women who do go through these narratives of abandoning their family and these projects don’t judge them. But Scenes From a Marriage really does vilify her for leaving. It spends an inordinate amount of time saying the husband is the one who is correct. I think The Lost Daughter is the project that really tells this story without judgment and without giving you some alternative explanation for why the mother is acting this way.

Sims: That line from the film: “I’m an unnatural mother.” What does that mean to you, Sophie? That was the line that Maggie Gyllenhaal said struck her so strongly.

Gilbert: I have a lot of ideas about the unnatural-mother line. One of the things I found so unsettling in the film is this theme of corruption. Things rot and go sour, like the fruit in her apartment and the worm in the doll. I don’t know what a natural mother is. I know that, as a parent, so many of the instincts that you have that you think are the natural ones are actually the opposite of what you’re supposed to be doing, particularly when it comes to sleep and creating boundaries. So I know what Leda means in the film. There’s this sense that her instinct is not to put her kids’ needs immediately above her own. She has these desires and ambitions that she interprets as selfish. And perhaps her unwillingness to let go of those desires and ambitions in service of her children is what she sees as unnatural.

And I think that’s one of the reasons the movie is connecting. It’s giving people an opportunity to say, “Hey, I feel that too.” When I wrote about the movie, I also wrote about this new novel The School for Good Mothers, which is this semi-dystopian, futuristic novel where, when mothers are found to have sinned as mothers, they are taken to an institution that teaches them to be good mothers. And the thing that they are taught over and over is that when you are a mother, you have no desires of your own anymore. What you want doesn’t matter. Everything is about your kids. You must put away all your own impulses and purely tend to your children. You must absorb things and take on every burden that life gives you, because that is what mothers do. And I think it is kind of a relief in this moment to be having this conversation about: Is this really a healthy pattern for parenting?

I mean, recently there was an event in Boston where a bunch of mothers got together to scream in public, because they’re so exhausted and overwhelmed. And the thing that the movie seems to say is maybe there is no natural mother. But there can be moments in your life where, if you’re not careful, this impulse gets corrupted.