This New Year’s Eve, I watched Maggie Gyllenhaal’s, The Lost Daughter on Netflix. I had to watch it in two sections partly because I had an alcohol-induced migraine and partly because the film felt too close to home. If you haven’t seen the film, it is about a middle-aged woman named Leda (played by Olivia Colman) who while on vacation in Greece meets a young mother named Nina (played by Dakota Johnson) and her 3-year-old daughter. At the start of the film, Leda and Nina meet after Nina’s daughter goes missing on the beach. Leda finds her and becomes the hero and the two women befriend each other. The first time Leda and Nina speak, Nina’s daughter can be heard screaming off-screen because she has lost her doll. She is ignored. We are then shown that Leda has childishly stolen the doll. Later, when Nina finds out, Leda’s excuse for it is that she was “just playing.”
The film is non-linear and goes back and forth presenting us with the disjointed memories of a young Leda (played by Jessie Buckley) and her own experience as a young mother of two. We slowly learn, through these flashbacks, that Leda leaves her daughters after discovering she never wanted to be a mother in the first place. It is heart-wrenching, especially when watching how her two daughters, Bianca and Martha witness their mother slowly fading away from them emotionally and physically. There is also a moment where Bianca breaks Leda’s childhood doll, which is reminiscent of the doll she has stolen from Nina’s daughter on the beach. Young Leda throws a tantrum scolding Bianca for breaking “her doll.”
As I watched this story unfold, I began having flashbacks of my own mother. I am going to be 30 years old next month and have only just begun to heal from the trauma caused by my relationship with her. It was always an unspoken fact that my mother found me difficult. When I was born, I was ripped from her womb and the first thing that I felt were the rubber-gloved hands of a nurse placing me in an incubator where I spent a month, thrashing around, begging to escape. Once I was healthy enough, I was taken home and I was finally held by my mother, but at the same time, I wasn’t. I remember as a child asking my mother to rub my back as I went to sleep and her giving me one or two impersonal rubs before she would decide I had enough comfort for the night.
In The Lost Daughter, there are flashbacks where a young Leda refuses to touch or comfort Bianca. She feels suffocated and in turn, Bianca is confused as to why she’s being pushed away. A young Leda pouts at her daughters for not understanding her point of view. She is a classic narcissistic with a victim complex. As much as it pains me to admit, she looks like my mother.
When I first decided to write this essay, I didn’t understand why I was so compelled to and I didn’t want to be attacked by my family who will undoubtedly decide that I am a traitor. But as I watched Olivia Colman and Jessie Buckley go back and forth filling the screen with resentful, devastating nuances that only a child with an unregulated nervous system can decode, I had the realization that I have never been this impacted by a film centering on a story between a Latinx mother and daughter. There are very few films that touch on the topic of narcissistic Latinx mothers. The closest I can think of would be the 2002 film Real Women Have Curves, but to be honest I didn’t relate to that one nearly as much as I did The Lost Daughter.
Real Women Have Curves tells the coming of age story about a young Latina (America Ferrera) who is forced to grapple with deciding her own future and going to college or staying home as a good daughter should and work at the family business. Here, Hollywood continues to exploit the trauma of being a woman of color (Latina) with the POV morphed into a caricature, showing only one side of our realities. We are vast and have multitudes of stories. So, yay, they threw us a bone, I guess…
I watched Real Woman Have Curves the first time when I was a teenager but I had a hard time relating mainly because I never had the option to go to college like she had or the support to go out and work. I lived a very controlled and sheltered upbringing with emotional distress at every turn and there was very little leeway to pursue my dreams and goals unless I ran away, which is exactly what I did.
Regardless of race, The Lost Daughter better reflected myself and my mother and the generations of mothers before her. I see the demand and assumption that all women should and must enjoy motherhood. I also see the pressure for daughters to just accept invalidations and emotional abuse. I see the hardship that Latinx women experience, being the caregiver, homemaker, and wife, without thanks or praise. These responsibilities also often transfer over to the eldest daughters whereas the sons are given first priority and a pat on the back. I am the second eldest so I never got this particular kind of pressure but I did witness my sister buckling under the weight of it all.
When I think of motherhood, I get a nagging knot in my stomach and the familiar feeling of resentment that I witnessed exuding from my mother’s. I had a plethora of medical issues, which meant I was expensive, to say the least. I took time away from my brother and sister and I was the problem child. The black sheep. The difficult one in more ways than one.
Though it might seem like I am writing a hit piece on my heritage, I am not. For me, writing this essay is like writing a complicated nuanced love story that captures how you can both be hurt and be the cause of a mother’s hurt. Especially if she never wanted to be a mother in the first place. I don’t know if this was the case for my mother, but I do know what her body language, tone of voice, and refusal to give me hugs long into my adult years meant. The Lost Daughter captures this emotion with minimal dialogue and haunting imagery. I connected with Bianca, asking her mother for comfort and following her around like a lost puppy. It is an image that I’ve seen Latinx daughters like myself experience time and time again but rarely on screen.
The Lost Daughter is an incredible film shot from a woman’s (mother’s) lens for mothers. It is a sensitive, thoughtful, and last, but not least, an honest depiction of how having children (especially if you are not ready) can cause regret, trauma, and resentment. Hopefully, it helps destigmatize the expectations around motherhood, allowing women who do not want that role to avoid it. It is certainly proof of how important it is that daughters have present mothers, no matter the race or history. After seeing the film, I understand myself and my family better, even as I wish for more stories on this topic, including some that center Latinx women. If we see ourselves we are validated and maybe, just maybe we can begin to heal.