This is a repost of our review from the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Lost Girls is now on Netflix.
There’s something oddly callow about Liz Garbus‘ adaptation of Robert Kolker‘s non-fiction book Lost Girls. Adaptation is always tricky, and Kolker’s story tries to examine the larger consequences of a case surrounding the disappearances and deaths of five sex workers in Long Island. A movie, especially one that took the route of a feature adaptation rather than a docu-series, would have to find a way to focus its narrative, but Lost Girls always seems to miss the bigger picture. While it has an interesting angle about one mother’s anger and determination to find out what happened to her daughter, the presentation of that anger becomes largely redundant and self-serving at the expense of the real victims of this case.
In Ellenville, New York in 2010, Mari Gilbert (Amy Ryan) discovers that her eldest daughter, Shannan, has gone missing. Despite working two jobs and also looking after her younger daughters Sherre (Thomasin McKenzie) and Sarra (Oona Lawrence), Mari pounds the pavement to do the job the cops are seemingly uninterested in pursuing. When a chance encounter leads to the discovery of four female bodies in Oak Beach, Mari believes she’s found answers, but Shannan remains missing even though her disappearance is clearly tied to that of the four dead women. Mari resolves to get answers by investigating herself and constantly hectoring the police department’s Commissioner Doman (Gabriel Byrne).
The core of the story Garbus seems to be telling is about how a working-class woman like Mari has to take it upon herself to do an investigation because the cops are either indifferent to her plight or are actively engaging in a cover-up. But because Garbus sticks so closely to Mari, we really have no idea what the cops are up to either way. We don’t learn anything about how the department functions, its methods, the way law enforcement tackles (or refuses to tackle) violence against sex workers, and if there was a cover-up, what the police department would have to gain from such effort. This leads to a film where Mari yells at Doman, Doman politely tells her they’re doing everything they can, she does some investigating of her own, and the cycle repeats.
For Garbus, Lost Girls is the story of a mother on the warpath, but the complexities of Mari Gilbert never seem to coalesce. We’re told at the outset that she’s working two jobs and she’s angry that she’s not getting enough shifts, so money must be tight. And yet she also seems to have the time to spend weeks doing an independent investigation. Rather than exploring the conflict of a woman with few resources giving everything she has to this investigation, the movie just seems to forget that Mari has other responsibilities. If Lost Girls is going to be The Mari Gilbert Story, then that story needs to click, and despite a fierce performance from Ryan, the film lacks the necessary shading for a compelling protagonist.
The narrowness of Mari’s character sinks the rest of the movie because you can see the interesting ideas that are trying to push their way in but are never fully explored. The other grieving mothers and daughters are pushed to the background because these characters are deemed not as interesting as Mari. Lost Girls clearly wants to say something about the work of women since only mothers and daughters come to investigate while all the cops are men, but the gender dynamics never amount to more than “Women care about dead women, and male cops don’t.” If that’s the statement you want to make, that’s fine, but it doesn’t work if everyone but the Gilberts are one-dimensional characters.
The main problem with Lost Girls isn’t that it focuses on one mother’s rage against the system; the problem is that the rage is so narrowly defined and explored. Mari’s struggles as a working-class woman who had a tumultuous relationship with her daughter serves as background so that Mari can just keep being angry at the cops. That anger is warranted and understandable, but Garbus doesn’t know how to build upon it, so all the other facets of the case just seem like missed opportunities. The real victims of this case and their families—not just the Gilberts but everyone—deserved better.