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One encouraging sign of Hollywood's progress on gender equity is "The Lost Daughter."

Maggie Gyllenhaal's first feature as a writer/director is outstanding. And it's not even the best debut from a female filmmaker this year (that would be Rebecca Hall's "Passing," now streaming on Netflix).

Based on an Elena Ferrante novel, "Daughter" is about motherhood. Specifically, it's about feeling ambivalent about motherhood. Olivia Colman plays Leda, a professor on vacation in Greece. She hoped to get some writing done but that doesn't happen because she becomes fascinated by others on the beach, including a harried young mom (Dakota Johnson) and her daughter. When the daughter disappears one day, it's Leda who finds her in an isolated spot near the beach.

Leda's fascination with the strangers is echoed in flashbacks, which Gyllenhaal skillfully weaves into the present-day story. When Leda was starting her career, she and her (now ex-) husband had two small daughters. Jessie Buckley ("Fargo") plays the younger Leda (Gyllenhaal somehow attracted both of England's hottest female actors to the same role). She clearly loves her kids but also is exasperated by the demands they place on her — and she, for a time, also "loses" them.

Virtually all of the "action" of "Daughter" takes place in Leda's head, which is why choosing those two actors was especially crucial. Both Colman and Buckley can convey a lot without saying a word. They make Leda intelligent, prickly and a bit mysterious. Why does she keep poring over the past? Why does she venture out in public when she really wants to be alone? Why did she go to a beach when her pale skin practically screams "Get out of the sun!?"

The answers, to the extent that we get any, are written on Colman's pensive face. Her Leda is ambivalent about practically everything — a flirtation with a local (Ed Harris), her decision to interact with others on the beach, even the impulsive act of stealing the briefly missing little girl's favorite toy. A lot of Leda's behavior is cruel and she's frequently abrupt with others but Colman inspires compassion because there's a sense she's withholding a key piece of information that would help us understand her choices. Like literally every person we ever meet on vacation, we don't know Leda but we learn enough to be curious about her.

Never judging Leda, "The Lost Daughter" feels very much like a film that only an actor such as Gyllenhaal could make. As she reveals new bits of information that fill in at least some of what brought Leda to this beach, it feels like the movie is saying not "Here's what's going on" but "What do you think about this detail?" or "Have you ever felt this way?" or "Humans are confusing, aren't we?"

"The Lost Daughter" is tough-minded in its emotional approach but Gyllenhaal directs with tenderness and curiosity. She has made a movie that asks a lot of compelling questions, with the biggie being, "Isn't motherhood hard?"

'The Lost Daughter'

*** 1/2 out of 4 stars

Rated: R for language and partial nudity.

Where: In limited theaters. On Netflix Friday.

Chris Hewitt • 612-673-4367