Charlyne Gelt, Ph.D.



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Cinema Therapy — Charlyne Gelt, Ph.D.

The Lost Daughter

From caring comes courage.
Lao Tzu

The Lost Daughter is a 2021 psychological drama film written and directed by Maggie Gyllenhaal, who adapted the script from the novel by the same name by Elena Ferrante. It premiered at the 78th Venice International Film Festival on September 3, 2021, and stars Olivia ColmanDakota JohnsonJessie BuckleyPaul MescalDagmara DomińczykJack FarthingOliver Jackson Cohen, Peter Sarsgaard, and Ed Harris.

While on holiday in Greece, Leda Caruso (Olivia Colman), a divorced, middle-aged college professor, anticipates a sunny and relaxed holiday, which is how the movie starts until the arrival of fellow vacationer Nina (Dakota Johnson), a young mother and Nina’s three-year-old daughter, Elena. Nina and Elena are members of a large, noisy family and, initially Leda is irritated by them, but when Elena goes missing, Leda helps in the search for her — and is actually the one who finds and returns the child to her family, becoming a heroine to all.

The incident opens up a link of communication between Leda and the young mother, who confides in Leda her struggles with motherhood, which in turn leads Leda to self-reveal her similar struggles with her own daughters, Bianca and Martha, and their current resulting strained relationship. Later on in the film, little Elena is distraught when her favorite doll is missing. In a strange turn of events, it is Leda who has secretly taken the doll, an action she herself doesn’t understand. They begin a search for the doll — with Nina offering a reward for its return.

Meanwhile, Leda learns that Nina is having an affair with a resort bartender, Will (Paul Mescal). Nina tells Leda it’s because she feels unloved by her husband, Toni, a controlling older man, and she desperately wants more out of her “lost” life. This triggers more memories and regrets in Leda over her past choices: She had abandoned her daughters for three years after she’d became too overwhelmed with motherhood, leaving them with her now ex-husband. During that time, she’d had an affair with a fellow professor (Peter Sarsgaard) and had felt “free and amazing,” only missing her children in later years. She now regrets having chosen a sexual affair and academia (her work) over love and family.

Leda, now deeply overinvolved in her new friend, buys a hat pin for Nina’s sun hat.

When Nina finds out that Leda knows about her affair, Will asks Leda if he can borrow Leda’s rental apartment to have sex. When Nina comes by to get the keys, Leda give her the hatpin gift, returns Elena's “lost” doll, confessing that she was the one who had taken it. Nina, furious over this, jabs Leda in the stomach with the hatpin and runs off. Leda packs up her bags, gets in her car and leaves the resort. Because of the pain of her wound, she drives off the road, stumbles out of the car, and down an embankment to the beach where she collapses on the sand. When she awakes, she calls her daughter, Bianca, who happens to be with Martha, and the two daughters are relieved to that their mother is okay. Leda says she is alive — in fact, she suddenly feels alive — and when she looks down, she sees that she is holding an orange in her hand. She proceeds to peel it “like a snake," just the way she used to do for her daughters when they were little. Symbolically, this act reunites Leda’s sense of connection with her daughters and the feeling of estrangement seems to have simply melted away.

Psychological Implications
Losses, regrets and self-discovery! 

This film takes us on a journey to our own states of loss, to the unlived aspects of our lives, and the opportunities to peel back the façade and the need for external validation. Things “lost” is the theme of The Lost Daughter —the lost child, the lost doll, but, more importantly, that feeling of “lost” which manifests as an overwhelming sense of longing for what we didn't get, a hunger for a lost sense of self when we feel disconnected from our core, unloved, emotionally abandoned or even threatened by a loss of autonomy over our own lives.

In the film, a busy career woman (Leda) escapes to a Greek island resort for a well-deserved vacation, and is unexpectedly confronted with everything in her life she has been running away from. What triggers this reaction is meeting fellow vacationer, Nina, the young mother of three-year-old daughter, Elena, and their noisy, unruly family. When it turns out that Nina is having an affair with a resort employee (Nina confides in Leda; blames her husband), Leda finds herself overwhelmed by memories of her own difficult, unconventional choices she made as a young mother, including leaving her daughters for three years to have an affair with a fellow professor and suffering the consequences right up to the present moment, including guilt and a strained relationship with her children.

On the surface, Leda presents as a devoted mother to her adult daughters, but beneath the façade of stability dwells an unhappy, resentful, unfulfilled woman lacking in self-awareness, who regrets the life choices she made as a mother and their consequences for herself and her family. Now, watching Nina and her daughter, Leda experiences a bitter aftertaste of life's tough choices.
How many women endure the limitations of motherhood, blame a spouse for their unlived life, as they face aging and the loss of their own autonomy? What about healthy communication to find options for a life well-lived? As poet Oliver states, “What are you going to do with the rest of your wonderful life?” We look back at the parts of us that got lost in the shuffle and wonder “What if?”

So, rather than rewrite her own story, Leda helps Nina engage in her affair by giving her the keys to her own apartment. The keys are among the many symbols in the film. What is the key to solving Leda’s aching heart? By giving Nina the keys to her apartment, Leda simply relives her own sadness and blocks Nina from facing the crisis that might lead to change. 

At the end, as the result of "seeing life through Nina's struggles,” along with having a horrific confrontation with Nina, and then a near-fatal car accident, Leda has her moment of clarity and finally recognizes how "lost" she really is. Finding herself alive after her accident, she feels alive at last! Her crisis has awakened to a turning point, to new possibilities, and to a new life with her daughters who now welcome a reconnection with her. In a memory flashback of peeling away the skin of an orange, it is a symbol of Leda peeling away the layers and the façade of external validation she used to cover her emptiness, her soul, now revealing the juicy parts of her unfinished life yet to be tasted.

Charlyne Gelt, Ph.D. (PSY22909) is a clinical psychologist who practices in Encino. She leads Women's Empowerment Groups that help women learn the tools to move beyond self-destructive relationship patterns. She may be reached at 818.501.4123 or Her office address is 16055 Ventura Blvd. #1129 Encino, CA 91436.

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San Fernando Valley Chapter – California Marriage and Family Therapists