Olivia Colman plays Leda, a standoffish college professor on holiday in Greece, whose quiet reverie is broken when a crass, vaguely menacing Greek American family takes over the tiny beachside resort. Leda finds herself fascinated with Nina (Dakota Johnson), a pretty young member of the family, whose issues with her bratty daughter make Leda look back on her own travails as a young mother. (Jessie Buckley plays Leda in the circa 1999 flashbacks.)
Gyllenhaal, who also wrote the screenplay based on Elena Ferrante's 2006 novel, maintains an uncomfortable tone throughout the film, her feature debut as a director. This vacation spot is hardly a seaside paradise: Gyllenhaal presents it as claustrophobic, unfriendly, and frankly ugly. And Colman, who we all know as a delightful flibbertigibbet in real life, portrays Leda as an inherently unlikable and downright weird woman. The plot centers around her impulsive decision to steal Nina's daughter's doll, during a panicky half hour when the daughter wanders off (hence the film's title). While the family is grateful to Leda for finding the daughter herself, the daughter becomes a holy terror without her doll – her own lost daughter, as it were. Why does Leda keep the doll hidden away? We are left to wonder.
The Lost Daughter is both accessible and inscrutable. It's an interesting watch, and Gyllenhaal and her cast do impeccable work, but there's a chilliness to the film that simply won't let you in.