Maggie Gyllenhaal makes her feature directorial debut with The Lost Daughter, an adaptation, also by Gyllenhaal, of Elena Ferrante’s novella. Gyllenhaal is astoundingly assured, as both a director and a screenwriter, interweaving past and present into a crushing tale of motherhood and personhood that are not always in agreement. 

Olivia Colman plays Leda, a professor vacationing alone in Greece, in the present day, while Jessie Buckley plays Leda in the past, as a young mother struggling to balance the demands of her domestic and academic lives. Daughter is a stark, unapologetic look at the cost of mothering, and Colman and Buckley both give ferociously compelling performances as a woman who is good and bad, selfish and loving, mean and gracious all at once.

Dakota Johnson also stars as Nina, a young mother vacationing in the same area as Leda. Occupying the same stretch of beach, Leda watches Nina with her daughter and reminisces about her own complicated history with her daughters, Bianca and Martha. Daughter is unsentimental about motherhood, in fact, the one character who represents blissed-out pregnancy and impending motherhood is an obnoxious, judgy, know-it-all who cannot possibly know anything by virtue of not actually having raised a child yet. Any attempt to romanticize motherhood is rejected in favor of a warts-and-all approach, where we see Leda’s own complicated past raising her daughters, and the unhappy reality behind Nina’s seemingly glamorous young-motherhood. Nina, much like Leda before her, is also unsure and roiling with negative emotions mothers aren’t meant to express out loud. When Nina’s daughter loses her doll and is inconsolable, Nina is clearly distraught and not coping with the ongoing toddler emotional meltdown. 

Within this unblinkered approach, though, Leda stands out, a sharply realized character both then and now. Gyllenhaal knows to let actors of Colman and Buckley’s caliber do their thing and does not overload them with dialogue or even stuff the plot of Daughter with things for them to do. It’s not that nothing happens, it’s more that Gyllenhaal does not seek easy resolution or tidy answers. Leda can be relieved to be alone, for her daughters to have moved to live near their father on another continent, and she can also be delighted to connect with one on the phone and catch up. Younger Leda can relish in time away from her family and still be overjoyed to see her daughters again. Older Leda is unapologetic about abandoning her children for three years, leaving it with a simple, “I’m selfish.”

It’s the messiness of her characters and untidiness of the ending that makes The Lost Daughter stand out among a glut of year-end films. If you want to see Olivia Colman, Jessie Buckley, and Dakota Johnson emote their way through complex portraits of often contradictory womanhood, this is the film for you. Ed Harris, Paul Mescal, Peter Sarsgaard, Jack Farthing, and Oliver Jackson-Cohen—who has rapidly carved a niche for himself playing utter dickheads—flit around the margins as the various men who impinge upon Leda and Nina’s lives, but the real concentration of the film is on Leda and Nina as individuals, and as distorted echoes of one another, young mothers a generation apart.

The Lost Daughter presents motherhood as a primal challenge, it insists that a woman does not stop being who she is just because she has given birth. Gyllenhaal gives her actors plenty of room to play these complex and almost gleefully unlikable women, and she also gives the story enough room for empathy to seep in from the corners, all set to a jazzily ominous score from Dickon Hinchliffe. Leda and Nina are not bad people, they’re not even bad mothers, at least, not all the time. They’re just women sometimes overwhelmed by the demands of their children and their own ambitions and desires, trying to find a balance that, frankly, doesn’t seem to exist. The Lost Daughter is a striking filmmaking debut from Maggie Gyllenhaal powered by a trio of exceptional performances from Colman, Buckley, and Johnson.

The Lost Daughter is now in select theaters and will be streaming on Netflix from December 31.