Premiering at the tail-end of this year’s Sundance film festival to faint applause, the earnest fact-based drama Lost Girls has made a swift beeline less than two months later for its rightful home: Netflix. While the platform has increasingly stretched itself to prove that it can, or at least try to, do everything, one of its most consistently popular subgenres is true crime, proved by everything from Making a Murderer to the recent hit The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez, appealing to an endless, morally dubious, public lust for violence, tragedy and, sometimes, justice.
Its output in this area can often feel exploitative, not a word that describes Lost Girls, a sensitively made yet frustratingly plodding film based on a still unsolved spate of killings by the so-called Long Island Serial Killer, detailed in a bestselling book by journalist Robert Kolker. Police believe that he killed between 10 and 16 people over a 20-year period but the film zeroes in on one missing young woman and how the search for her led to the discovery of four other bodies. It’s a tale of righteous indignation, police incompetence and the inability of men with authority to listen to and believe the voices of women. Mari Gilbert (Amy Ryan) is a mother struggling on the breadline, working two jobs to try to provide for her two daughters. A third, her eldest Shannan, lives elsewhere with Mari reluctantly asking her for financial assistance every now and then. Exactly where Shannan gets her money from is unspoken but known by Mari, a family secret that gets unearthed when Shannan goes missing.
As a sex worker who found her clients on Craigslist (the perpetrator was also known as the Craigslist Killer), Shannan was quickly ignored or at least de-prioritised by police, who judged her in the same broad and moralistic way that the media also did at the time. Unwilling to let her daughter’s disappearance become old news, Mari rallies together with the families of women whose bodies have been found and starts to put the pieces together with or without police help.
Lost Girls is the first narrative feature from documentarian Liz Garbus, whose previous subjects have covered everything from Nina Simone to the Holocaust, and throughout the film, she struggles to find the right balance between muted naturalism and button-pushing Hollywood formula. Admirable restraint in some scenes is followed by crusty cliche in others and while some actors dial it down, others lean into tropes, such as Lola Kirke as a cartoonish prostitute and 30 Rock’s Dean Winters as a bumbling cop. Ryan is similarly unmodulated, believably raw at times and then uncomfortably grandstanding at others. It’s a pleasure to see her given so much screen time but it’s not a performance that ever cuts quite as deep as it needs to, our emotional attachment to the unfolding devastation wavering at best.
Garbus and screenwriter Michael Werwie embed the film with a timely anger, showing us an all-too-familiar culture of victim-shaming and unfairly attributed blame, all at the feet of women. There’s also an undercurrent of respect afforded to those working in the sex industry who too often get labelled on and off screen and the film is never less than well-intentioned but intentions only get us so far. As sincere and as sensitive as the film might be, it’s never as involving or as effective as the story at its centre. One of the most shocking details is revealed in a text coda which thrusts a poorly developed subplot to the forefront, one of many strands and character dynamics that don’t get enough time or depth. At 95 minutes, Lost Girls is sorely lacking and, ironically, one wonders what a Garbus docuseries could have found instead.
Source: The Guardian