Film Reviews

THE LOST DAUGHTER and PASSING are Two Sides of the “Actors-Turned-Directors” Coin


Our very own Hilary Jane Smith is reporting from the 2021 New York Film Festival. Today: Maggie Gyllenhaal’s THE LOST DAUGHTER and Rebecca Hall’s PASSING.

The Lost Daughter still


Director: Maggie Gyllenhaal 

A recent article in New York Magazine dubbed the genre of the summer “Resort Horror,” a tongue-in-cheek moniker of film and TV’s offerings of privileged people in tropical locales facing the dangers of their own secrets. On paper, that’s what THE LOST DAUGHTER appeared to embody: a middle-aged divorcee, played by a captivating Olivia Colman, vacations solo in Italy to work on her writing, only to be disturbed by the rowdy, disruptive family staying on the same beach. The film is actually much deeper than that description would let on, and in fact it has much more in common with the work of Marielle Heller than it does Mike White. It’s an emotional narrative about female identity and agency, and one that does not hold back about the struggles of modern womanhood. Colman’s character, Leda, is fascinated with the neighboring family’s young mother and her child, and as the trip goes on, interactions trigger flashbacks about her own traumas of child-rearing while balancing a career and marriage. 

This is Maggie Gyllenhaal’s first film, produced and adapted from Elena Ferrante’s novel of the same name; she won the award for Best Screenplay at Venice, and I would not be surprised if THE LOST DAUGHTER finds itself as a screenplay nomination shoe-in come awards season. It’s got a spellbinding quality to the plot that only some of the greatest psychological dramas achieve, never once going overboard. Gyllenhaal frames it all with an extreme intimacy that suffocates, but works to bring us into the mind of a troubled narrator. For a first film, Gyllenhaal is incredibly poised, and it shows in the performances of her ensemble cast, her acting chops informing how each and every character is guided with intention and deeper meaning. Their positioning is as important to the living tableau of THE LOST DAUGHTER as Leda’s own, and as more of her transgressions in both the past and present are revealed, the stakes climb to a climactic end.

Passing Still


Director: Rebecca Hall

Rebecca Hall’s directorial debut is a quiet, emotive journey through the Harlem Renaissance, chronicling two light-skinned Black women dealing with the complexities of coding and identity. I wanted to love PASSING just as much as it clearly wanted me to—it felt like a true Hollywood production straight out of the mid-century. Hall’s adherence to ambiguity as it relates to the morals surrounding racial passing and identity are both a strength and a weakness of the picture. There were times where I could not understand Tessa Thompson’s character, Irene, beyond the surface, but perhaps that’s a short-coming of her performance. Ruth Negga as Claire on the other hand, captures the breathy, uninhibited essence of a woman possessed. While Hall’s direction is capable and controlled, her weak sense of pacing led to scenes lingering past their point of profundity. However, she does much more than merely bottling the essence of 1950s weepies—she elevates it with an intelligence that lends so much more authenticity than IMITATION OF LIFE ever could. Still, PASSING is as Oscar-baity as it gets, with an inherent glamour and wealth in its story. The ‘20s period-setting and casting echoes every gorgeous sentiment from the Golden Age of Hollywood, down to the vocal inflections of the performers, the usage of music, and the emotional richness of the narrative. Even though I found Tessa Thompson not as strong among the cast, and Rebecca Hall a bit out of her league, I will say that it’s ultimately a captivating film, and one that I’m sure, as per its own desires, will be promoted and accoladed this awards season.

Hilary Jane Smith
Hilary Jane Smith is a culture and film writer. Her work can be seen in The Bold Italic, Feature Presentation, and this amazing outlet, Merry-Go-Round. A native Californian, she now lives and works in NYC.

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