Parenthood is an experience that
seems to resist language: There are few things you can say that are both
polite and true. As Olivia Colman says with a
straight face to a heavily pregnant stranger in The Lost Daughter, instead of the expected congratulation,
“Children are a crushing responsibility.”
The Lost Daughter is one of the slenderer Elena Ferrante novels, now a film adapted by Maggie Gyllenhaal and released on Netflix on New Year’s Eve. Another new parenting movie, Mike Mills’s C’mon C’mon, came to online streaming around Christmas. Both are about sensitive, creative-class white intellectuals beset by melancholy contemplations of their own inability to quite face becoming the caretaker of young children, and struggling with either the practical reality or the memory of that experience. Where The Lost Daughter is caustic, C’mon C’mon is starry-eyed. But both films are about middle-aged people crushed by that responsibility Leda mentions. Both take an interest in the way caretaking engenders fear as well as joy and boredom. The difficulty of combining such wide registers of feeling in film is why it’s so hard to make a good movie about parenting, I think: The sweetness of loving a funny kid can curdle into gloop so easily (see: Little Miss Sunshine; Wes Anderson’s more child-centric movies), and the raw existential terror of parenting is nearly impossible to convey if the child is the center of the story.
Something has to be blocked out to get any original purchase on the subject. In order to film parenthood, directors Mills and Gyllenhaal displace it, making their stories not about sons and daughters but nephews, half-strangers, other people’s children. Both use distance in order to get closer, in the long run; both are ambivalent, oddly low in their stakes (no car chases or espionage) but high in their feeling, addressing the impossible, ordinary, maddening task of keeping both yourself and a child alive.
It’s a waiter who sets Leda (Olivia Colman) free in The Lost Daughter. At the beginning of the movie, Leda—a woman in her late forties, the mother of two grown-up girls—is holidaying on a Greek island. Hewing closely to the source novel, Gyllenhaal’s script frequently matches Ann Goldstein’s English translation of Ferrante’s book. She has transposed nationalities and class markers fairly literally: Instead of a refined Italian tourist at an Italian resort who meets a gang of noisy Neapolitans, Leda is now an Englishwoman in Greece, encountering equally noisy Americans of Greek descent.
As Leda settles into her sun lounger on the beach, her solitude is difficult to parse: Is it loneliness? Exile? Freedom? There’s a kind of beach-monitor bartender (Paul Mescal) employed at the place she’s staying, and it is while he tends to her needs with drinks and sun-lounger adjustments that she finally feels the bonds of obligation snap. With nobody to take care of, her daughters now adults, and with this nanny-cum-bartender playing mommy to her infantilized holidaymaker, what will she do? Leda feels finally “protected,” Ferrante writes, in the novel, “without deadlines to keep in mind, nothing urgent to confront. No one depended anymore on my care and, finally, even I was no longer a burden to myself.” It’s a traumatic release, as if she has just come out of a prison where she has served a quarter-decade sentence of parenthood and is now struggling to reintegrate into society.
There’s no interior monologue in the film, so that struggle isn’t quite so legible in the movie. As we see Leda from the outside, without access to her thoughts, everything seems more symbolic, more mysterious and foreboding. In a review for The New Yorker, Richard Brody has faulted Gyllenhaal for the interior detail she has sacrificed from her source material, but it’s in the nature of film to be a bit mime-like and crude where a novel can be precise. Gyllenhaal succeeds, I think, in evoking a similar atmosphere of confusion tinged with danger by resisting the temptation to gather the Greek idyll into wide shots, keeping Leda at such a close distance from the camera that we feel constrained, unable to get a handle on her. It makes Leda’s solitude seem porous and vulnerable—she’s clearly not used to it—while we grow oddly dependent on her point of view, as if she’s carrying us in her arms like a baby.
She doesn’t take the freedom and run. Instead, she slides into a classic trope of European film, becoming the voyeur by the water’s edge, as in Death in Venice, Swimming Pool, Stranger by the Lake. The water is a threat, but so are the strangers. As if vampirically drawn to scenes of mother-daughter obligation, Leda immediately begins eyeing up a beautiful young mother, down the beach—Nina (Dakota Johnson), whose daughter of about four is using a watering can to sprinkle her with seawater as she rests, as if tending to a little garden. Leda is captivated by them both, as well as by the little doll the child carries—a captivation that morphs into a mystery comprised of flashbacks and ambiguity, tantalizing us with clues about what exactly happened to cause Leda to experience dizzy spells whenever anybody mentions either of her grown-up daughters.
Who is really the baby here? Who is the mommy? Who belongs to whom? Whose job is it to stop whom from crying, and are those really both the same thing? Mike Mills takes a somewhat different approach to caretaking in C’Mon C’Mon, a kind of sister piece to The Lost Daughter, starring Joaquin Phoenix as uncle Johnny—a man who usually lives alone, trying to understand a nephew, Jesse, thrust into his care by a family crisis. It’s a heartfelt movie, shot in romantic black and white, and featuring moments of sublime mutual understanding between child and adult. Closest tonally to his film Beginners, about a lost young man coping with his father’s death, and much enhanced by the presence of Gaby Hoffman, playing Johnny’s sister, C’mon C’mon is awash with regret—over badly tended sibling relationships, undealt-with mommy issues, but also the satisfaction of everyday caretaking, the hope implicit in all those lunches made and dishes done.
The Lost Daughter movie is Maggie Gyllenhaal’s first as a director, and with Olivia Colman in the lead and Ferrante as the source material, the film rests on an exceptionally sturdy tripod of female genius. The combination of Mike Mills and Joaquin Phoenix is a little wobblier, as both have produced uneven work in the last few years, but it comes together because its subject is simpler. C’mon C’mon looks idealistic, foolish even, beside The Lost Daughter—which is exactly right. Johnny is a big baby himself, a radio journalist who makes content out of asking little kids questions he can’t figure out the answers to himself. If Leda is the consummate adult woman pulled back into babyhood by her seaside mom-crush, he is the manchild wrenched into adulthood by Jesse.
As a journalist, and therefore a frustrated artist, Johnny is threatened by Jesse’s very vulnerability, because it pulls Peter Pan out of the sky and forces him to be a grown up. If Gyllenhaal refuses to broaden her shots, trapping us inside Leda’s world, then Mills does the exact opposite. The boy and his uncle are creatures of the city, with its four settings of Detroit, Los Angeles, New Orleans, and New York appearing in majestic chiaroscuro, their gorgeous fixity bringing a kind of solid, avuncular presence to the film that makes everything feel as if it’s going to be OK.
For all the praise critics have heaped on Gyllenhaal for breaking the taboo on regretful motherhood, a topic that is still authentically secret, the real risky business here is in mixing motherhood and eroticism, specifically queer eroticism. To cut a long story short, Leda’s exit from her family home is hastened by a brief meeting between herself and a hiker named Brenda, a scene we see in a flashback with young Leda played by Jessie Buckley. Brenda gives young Leda a lot of attention and praise and stirs fantasies within her. Leda then gives Brenda a short piece of her published writing, which leads her to contact with an academic who also praises her, leading to an affair.
Once we know about Brenda, we can see that Leda is attempting to insert herself into Nina’s life as a similarly provocative figure. But just as Leda drew Brenda to herself as a young woman, Nina drew Leda to her through her beauty—it’s a motion toward one another and away from the family unit. Gyllenhaal lingers long and lovingly on Dakota Johnson’s skin, her hair, the play of sunshine on both; the claustrophobic shots of Leda are in Nina’s case close-ups born of desire.
The problem with this queer thread is that it’s a little bit too magical: Brenda the hiker does quite a lot of heavy lifting in the story, both wakening Leda from a sexual slumber of her marriage and orchestrating a great leap forward in her career—a plot point Gyllenhaal fumbles with in the film, altering details. Gyllenhaal’s real-life husband, Peter Sarsgaard, plays an academic whom young Leda sleeps with after he praises her work in a (very corny) lecture—a detail Gyllenhaal enhances by making his character actively creepy, which is effective but drowns out the Brenda stuff. There’s also a queer-coded woman character in C’mon C’mon who seems to do all the actual labor in the radio project Johnny is “working” on, while exhibiting infinite patience for her colleague.
Neither film would function at all without these somewhat underdeveloped side characters, who are of course not mothers themselves. They are sort of overflow areas for extra bits of plot—the woman producer in C’Mon C’mon enchants Jesse, for example, and draws out Johnny into expository conversation. It’s just a bit too easy, although such side characters do nicely demonstrate that nobody, not even Johnny or Leda, is a true outsider: To the people who help them be themselves, like the bartender or the other producer or the hiker or any number of other random acquaintances, they are the main character, the child in the story.
The roles of mommy and baby, or man and child, or any other position within a caretaking unit, are determined, these movies both show, by narrative, which is made up of actions. You are what you do to the other people in your little nexus, and anybody can be a baby if they act enough like one. Babies can be mommies to their dolls, and women can be dolls in movies, which makes the director into the mommy, and so on—it’s an infinite fractal of relationality, of care. Storytelling is caring, because it is about engendering a world for which the director ultimately takes responsibility. Entering into and being released from responsibility is painful, Mills and Gyllenhaal explain in these two films: Like a mismatched couple who somehow fall in love anyway, they make for a somewhat weird but enchanting double bill.