On The Lost Daughter & The Humans
JANUARY 5, 2022
Dakota Johnson and Olivia Colman in 2021's The Lost Daughter.
ost vacations appear lovelier in the imagination. Mundane practicalities and stretches of tedium don’t intrude there; you can still optimistically cling onto the illogical-but-eternally-seductive idea that whatever problems you’re dealing with in your “real life” will evaporate into the
presumably sunny skies of this new, prettier location for the next x days, weeks.
The recognizable letdown of reality sets in almost as soon as Leda (an excellent Olivia Colman), the comparative-literature professor at the center of actress Maggie Gyllenhaal’s terrific filmmaking debut The Lost Daughter,
arrives alone on the fictional Greek island of Kyopeli at the beginning of the film for an ostensible work retreat. Topped off with a bowl of rotting fruit on the dining-room table, her waterfront rental turns out to be a bit misleadingly photogenic. And the supposed-to-be tranquil beach by her place is usually aswarm with people having a kind of boisterous fun too noisy to be, at best, creatively permissible white noise.
Compounding Leda’s trifling dismay is the intrusive self-assessment that starts settling in as she gets to know another vacationgoer — a young mother named Nina (Dakota Johnson, doing career-best work) — who with her large extended family often frequents the same beach where Leda reads and takes notes. Seeing the clearly exhausted Nina struggle with her little daughter Elena inundates Leda with memories of the deep-seated malaise she herself experienced as a young mother of two. (In flashbacks, in which Leda is played with about-to-explode anguish by Jessie Buckley, we get to know a woman for whom maternal and domestic duty was uncomfortably inhibiting to her intellectual ambitions.) But while Leda, on a gut level, knows Nina’s unease all too well, she spontaneously performs an act of cruelty that betrays any notional sympathy. When an opportunity arises, she inexplicably snatches Elena’s treasured doll. She hides it in one of her kitchen cabinets, ensuring the fatigue in Nina’s thickly-kohled eyes only continues intensifying in the course of this supposed-to-be-merry family vacation.
The Lost Daughter caters above all to the senses. With assistance from cinematographer Helene Louvart’s unsettling, close-up-heavy shooting style, Gyllenhaal keeps things oblique, almost mysterious, to ensure Leda’s perspective — disoriented, self-loathing, complicatedly commiserative — be evocatively (if not always psychologically thoroughly) conveyed. Sharp stares are usually as meaning-packed as the scant-but-significant dialogue Leda exchanges not just with Nina but Lyle (Ed Harris), the apartment owner who maybe has a crush on her or perhaps just relates to the middle-aged self-hatred she emanates; William (Paul Mescal), the kind, 24-ish Irish student who tends the beach’s bar and lends Leda an open ear over dinner one evening; and Callie (a standout Dagmara Domińczyk), Nina’s tough-but-warm sister-in-law facing motherhood for the first time in her 40s.
Leda can’t explain why she meanly swipes the doll when she’s inevitably asked. But Gyllenhaal, the kind of generous director confident her audience need not be steered toward a certain interpretation, makes room for us to ponder what it suggests. (In The Lost Daughter, the enigmas at the center of this and several other gestures make the drama even more compelling.) Maybe Leda so much sees herself in the on-edge Nina that she’s indirectly and belatedly punishing herself for that discomfort. It could also be that, despite knowing better, she can’t help herself from instinctively siding with a society that looks at mothers experiencing great torment with their role like they were a contemptible deviant. Gyllenhaal’s eye probes without forsaking its compassion. When we learn that Leda’s youthful dissatisfaction manifested in what many would consider an ultimate taboo, Gyllenhaal casts the move not judgmentally or with a narrow explanation but with empathetic understanding, unworried about redemption or likability.
Some have deemed The Lost Daughter too pristine and overstyled to adequately serve its emotionally messy subject matter, capped off with a roundelay of characters a hair too opaque to feel fully realized. To the second charge I say that that’s how it should be: the movie is so comprehensively seen through Leda’s afflicted eyes that those around her on this vacation should seem almost more symbolic than multi-dimensional, living things onto which she can easily project. (Though even then I felt given enough to work with to imagine fuller lives with the semblances of personal details relayed.)
And the first charge I disagree with. With stories like this one it’s easy to fall into expectations of there being at least one great and actorly emotional breakdown, paired with a dramatically exciting moment inducing hopeful forward motion that makes a story feel appropriately arc-shaped — somehow more “worth our time.” With those expectations going unmet, it could seem like the narrative is too circular, polished, stifled. But The Lost Daughter’s firm understatedness and lack of real resolution is only befitting for material in large part about the nightmare of being unable to fully articulate or truly escape maternal agony, featuring characters better equipped to communicate with quick glances than thought-over confessions. The Lost Daughter isn’t as much looking for edifying breakthroughs and easy forgiveness as it is in potentially making peace with the reality that while things don’t always get better they may get clearer — a saving grace or another layer of Hell depending on your vantage.
t’s Thanksgiving, and this year the Blake family is congregating not in Scranton, where parents Erik and Deidre (Richard Jenkins and Jayne Houdyshell) live, but the enviably spacious (though battered) Manhattan apartment youngest daughter Brigid (Beanie Feldstein) has just moved into
with her boyfriend of a year, Richard (Steven Yeun). Erik and Deidre, lower-middle-class Irish Catholics, have brought Erik’s mother, referred to only as Momo (June Squibb). Oldest daughter Aimee (Amy Schumer) is coming from Philadelphia.
It’s immediately clear that The Humans, written and directed by Stephen Karam from his acclaimed, same-titled 2016 play unseen by me, is to be an uncomfortably tense family drama — a “holiday gone awry” sort of movie. Karam opts to shoot the film with menacing horror-style lighting; he integrates images early on of Erik staring forebodingly out the living-room window, seemingly harboring a secret whose reveal continues being hinted at across the evening through whispered asides.
Everyone strains to put their best face on for their relatives when The Humans opens. Aimee is dealing with a chronic illness and the breakup of a long-term relationship. Composer Brigid’s fifth rejection letter for a grant recently came in the mail. Deidre is struggling with weight and general fulfillment, teased for her dilettantish interests in volunteer work. And Momo has been dealing with dementia for the last few years now, with only a couple moments of lucidity interrupting the night’s proceedings. The apartment becomes a kind of mnemonic of everyone’s turmoil. Light bulbs are constantly burning out. The neighbor upstairs constantly stomps around; pipe damage has discolored and calloused the walls and ceilings. The space may signify a fresh start to Brigid and Richard. But the painted-over flaws, and the inhospitable-to-gossip thin walls, only remind this family of the personal baggage they’re trying to conceal but won’t be able to keep hidden much longer.
Though the drama might have been deepened if it were to dwell more on the class and alluded-to political differences between the family members, and though Karam’s horror-tinged direction can sometimes formally skew on the nose, The Humans is otherwise an illustrative example of the family-drama form. The lived-in dialogue deftly vacillates between a distinctly familial brand of passive aggression and teasing humor, and the cast without trouble cultivates a household’s particular type of prickly-then-loving-then-prickly-again chemistry. The Humans is not technically a horror movie. But Karam’s amplification of everyday pain through the genre’s sense of style makes it eerier than most horror offerings of the last year.
The Lost Daughter: A
The Humans: B+