The Movie That Understands the Secret Shame of Motherhood

Shirley Li in The Atlantic:

Maggie Gyllenhaal has a theory that the mothers we see on-screen tend to fall into one of two categories. First, there’s the “fantasy mother,” who’s perfect in every way except when she has, say, some oatmeal on her sweater or runs a little late for a parent-teacher conference. On the flip side is the “monstrous mother,” who either mistreats her children or struggles with emotions that stifle her ability to parent; her story arc builds toward making her more palatable to viewers. Many films that attempt to rehabilitate an imperfect mother, such as Woman Under the Influence and Terms of Endearment, have been directed by great artists, and these characters have been played by great actors. And yet, Gyllenhaal told me over Zoom last month, with such movies, “you’re basically watching the destruction of this powerful life force.”

The Lost Daughter, Gyllenhaal’s first film as a writer-director, rejects this binary. The movie, based on Elena Ferrante’s novel and now streaming on Netflix, follows Leda, a middle-aged divorcée who abandoned her two daughters for three years when they were children. Her story is not an easy one to take in. On a solo vacation, Leda (played by Olivia Colman) becomes obsessed with a young mother and her child and—for reasons even she doesn’t understand—steals the girl’s beloved doll, upending the pair’s relationship. The novel “disturbed” Gyllenhaal when she first read it, but she resisted the urge to judge the character at its center. Instead, she probed a provocative assertion that Leda makes—“I’m an unnatural mother”—to create a film that challenges Hollywood’s frustratingly limiting portrayals of parenthood. “That’s a really brilliant line in the book, because what does that mean?” Gyllenhaal said. “What’s an unnatural mother? But really, the question that it’s asking is ‘What’s a natural mother?’”

More here.