Oscar season has only just begun, but the award for best line in any movie, maybe ever, goes to Maggie Gyllenhaal’s “The Lost Daughter”.
“Children are an overwhelming responsibility,” Olivia Colman’s Leda tells a very pregnant woman. “Happy Birthday.”
Pregnant woman Callie (a wonderful Dagmara Dominczyk) offered Leda a piece of her own birthday cake to apologize for calling Leda a bad name when she refused to leave her place on a Italian beach to accommodate Callie’s sprawling family.
Swimming in the subtext, the line signals the film’s painful yet lucid and rigorous exploration of motherhood at a time when motherhood needs all the lucid and rigorous exploration it can get.
What we got instead, at least politically, is pretty much the same old hamster wheel of promises and punishments that has plagued American mothers since John Adams neglected to heed his wife’s advice to ” remember the ladies ”. (He was helping to create a modern democracy; she was fighting to keep their farm running and their children not to die of smallpox.)
Who could have imagined a year that began with widespread determination to correct the childcare crisis that has forced millions of women out of the workplace (and / or into therapy) during the COVID pandemic -19 instead ending with a frontal assault on women’s reproductive rights? Just about any woman with knowledge of American history.
Eighteen months of closures, home learning and ad hoc out-of-school daycare have made it clear that parenting duties still largely fall on mothers. Even with kids back to school – but often not for team sports and other extracurricular activities – maternal exhaustion doesn’t even begin to cover it up.
This may explain why a number of films and shows this year have addressed the obstacles and ambiguities of motherhood.
From the abuses that Alex (Margaret Qualley) must overcome to protect and keep his daughter in “Maid” to the social restrictions that forced Lucille Ball, as “Being the Ricardos” tells it, to fight for the right to show her pregnancy to on television, the obstacles are numerous and obvious.
The ambiguities are just as real but harder to describe, as they deal with emotions that mothers are not meant to have – let alone defend.
“The truth is, I probably never should have had kids,” Caroline Collingwood (Harriet Walter) told her daughter Shiv (Sarah Snook) in a recent episode of “Succession,” an ode to the jet set to nuclear capabilities of parental approval. “You made the right decision; some people just aren’t cut out to be mothers.
Caroline says this on her way; Shiv hears it as a taunt and immediately begins making plans to have the child she never seemed to want – a common tactic, alas. The absence of children in women’s lives is too often seen as a lack; women who choose not to have children are often seen as selfish, broken, or at the very least misguided.
Mothers who do not devote 100% of their energy to their children often face the same kind of criticism – yes, even at this supposedly enlightened age. As many have related, including Jennifer Senior in “All Joy and No Fun,” virtually every time-saving or social change device that benefits mothers has been met with a new standard of “good” parenting. (Honestly, if you want to grind your own baby food, that’s fine, but it’s not “better.”)
Housewives remain the largest unpaid and unrecognized workforce in this country, while women entering the workforce are still viewed with suspicion. (Has there ever been a bigger problem than the term ‘full-time mother’?) Parenting is difficult, our country does everything possible to make it more difficult, and when a mother fails, even without fault on her part or only in her mind, she is a bad mother.
No cinematic story has approached this rat nest teeming with myth and need, expectation and exhaustion, love and suffocation more directly than “The Lost Girl.” Based on a short story by Elena Ferrante, best known for her brilliant and complex chronicle of female friendship in “The Neapolitan Novels,” “The Lost Daughter” takes a look at the messy humanity of motherhood with the kind of empathetic focus usually reserved for gangsters, series killers and other anti-heroes.
From the moment we meet Leda, alone on a semi-working vacation, we know she is a tangle of self-confidence and self-recrimination, especially unlike Callie, whose blissful motherhood experience remains confined. to pregnancy. When, during their polite reconciliation on the beach, Callie learns that Leda has two daughters, aged 25 and 23, she suggests their absence could explain Leda’s bad mood.
“You have to be with your daughters,” Callie said. To which Leda responds, mixing frankness, grief and fury as only Colman knows how to brilliantly do, with a simple declarative sentence:
“Children are an overwhelming responsibility. Happy Birthday.”
I could watch her say that line all day.
Leda came to this little beach for a bit of peace and quiet, which is almost immediately shattered by this big Queens family. Watching Nina (Dakota Johnson) play and care for her young daughter brings back Leda’s own experiences as a young mother. When the young girl goes missing, Leda remembers her own panic in a similar situation and joins in the search. Finding the girl, she is drawn into the family, although her interest lies almost solely with Nina, in whom she believes she sees a similar commotion as hers.
Flashbacks (in which Leda is played by Jessie Buckley) reveal a serious academic trying to stay sane in a tiny apartment filled with two young girls and their endless needs. Her love for them is just as real and palpable as her growing sense of suffocation, but soon even her daughter’s request for kisses after cutting her finger looks like an assault.
Back at the beach, Nina has to deal with a girl inconsolable over the loss of her doll. In a brilliant scene in a toy store, we see Nina’s battle with love and frustration as her daughter first puts her hands over her mother’s mouth to prevent her from speaking, then refuses to speak. being shot, wrapping her arms and legs around Nina in that limpet choke is familiar to all mothers around the world.
Leda is looking at both sympathy and something else… Connection? Validation?
There might be mothers who never felt they were overwhelmed – or that the only response to a seemingly impossible situation was to walk away from it – but I haven’t met any. Even the cutest and most adored children are often demanding, unreasonable, clingy, and very loud. Different women react differently and sometimes in ways that go against the myth of motherhood and their own expectations.
Sometimes the sacrifices and accommodations required by motherhood only become clear when you’re up to your armpits in real children, and sometimes women just aren’t able to make them, in the moment or not. all.
Leda sees in the other woman, with precision or not, her own attempt to create a space for herself, to cling to an identity not defined by the capacity to comfort a crying child. Like Nina, she was cursed with a husband who was no help, and yet the responsibility for what she calls her “unnatural” motherhood lies with her alone.
Neither Leda nor Nina is presented as a model or even an object of sympathy; Leda’s journey is twisted and a bit inexplicable. (It is not, it must be said, violent or abusive.) But the beauty and importance of “The Lost Girl” lies in its ability to have two thoughts at the same time: a mother can love her children, deeply. , genuinely and need it. something more from life too. And if a marriage or a society does not offer her reasonable support, she will sometimes make a desperate choice to survive. Even if that means carrying the weight of that choice for the rest of his life.
But how much better it would be if she just had a little help.