Lost Girls on Netflix - the Sundance crime drama is better than their usual fare but still not perfect

Gabriella Geisinger
Photo credit: Netflix

From Digital Spy

Despite the platform upon which Lost Girls has launched, it isn't a Netflix original movie. Instead, the streaming giant purchased the true-crime-based story out of Sundance, and for good reason.

When approaching Lost Girls, it's important to remember that though it is based on a true story – the 10-16 victims of the still-unidentified Long Island Serial Killer – the movie is a work of fiction. To tell the story it seeks to tell, it has to narrow the focus down from the dozen or so murdered women to one woman, Shannan Gilbert.

Her mother Mari, played by Amy Ryan (The Office), embarks on a dark journey that places her face-to-face with hard truths about her daughter, herself and police bias against sex workers. The synopsis continues: "Determined to find her daughter at all costs, Mari Gilbert retraces Shannan's last known steps, driving her own investigation to an insular gated community near the desolate outer banks of Long Island.

Photo credit: Netflix

"Her discoveries force law enforcement and the media to uncover more than a dozen unsolved murders of sex workers, young lives Mari will not let the world forget."

Mari is the backbone of the movie, accompanied by her two surviving daughters Sherre (Thomasin McKenzie, Jojo Rabbit) and Sarra (Oona Laurence, broadway's Matilda).

By focussing on Shannan's story, Lost Girls manages to elicit an element of fear in the viewer: she could be your daughter, sister, or friend. Ryan gives a compelling performance of a woman straddling various cliff edges, from her youngest daughter's mental illness to her unstable job hours.

Lost Girls succeeds in not letting itself be caught up in tropes of any one kind: there is no white-trash-to-media-darling story, nor the tale of a woman who becomes so obsessed with finding one daughter she neglects her others. Instead, Ryan is believable as a woman who had kids too young, with no support, in a blue-collar town that refuses to see the value of her life, or of her daughters' lives.

That is the takeaway from this movie: that these women's lives have value and deserve to be taken seriously, even if society doesn't wish to acknowledge them.

Though it's easy to say some cops border on comically indifferent to Mari's plight, the fact is that police for decades have ignored the strife of society's most vulnerable. A fan of comedy TV will notice familiar faces: Dean Winters, aka the Vulture from Brooklyn Nine-Nine, plays, unsurprisingly, a bad cop.

Photo credit: Netflix

Typecasting aside, as the detective in charge of the missing women's cases, he brings the air of someone who can't be bothered with finding justice because, why bother? It's indifference, rather than outright vitriol, that is all the more frightening.

Though the film is told almost wholly from Mari's point of view, we do get opposing beliefs: in particular from Lola Kirke's (Mozart in the Jungle) Kim, the sister of a victim who is a sex worker herself. She offers doses of reality for Mari about the life Shannan led and why she led it.

Photo credit: Netflix

None of this is delivered in anger, though. What sticks out most of all in this film is there isn't a lot of yelling. Many movies like this often rely on shouting to get across the message that we! are! angry! about! injustice!

Mari may raise her voice occasionally, but what you remember after the film finishes isn't the volume but the impact of her words. It's a cerebral experience, not a visceral one, though – which may leave some viewers feeling like they want more.

Those who want an ending, a decisive solution to who killed Shannan and the other women, will be left frustrated. In real life, no-one knows who murdered the 10-16 victims – the very fact that we don't know how many victims there are, nor if it was even one killer alone, is proof enough of that.

Photo credit: Netflix

Lost Girls may have a narrow focus – the two years it took to find Shannan's body – but it doesn't leave you without the patented true-crime title card. It ends with real footage of Mari, and reveals that as she passed away in 2016 while intervening in her daughter Sarra's psychotic episode, she sustained fatal stabbing wounds.

It's not a happy story, and it's not a happy film, yet it doesn't leave you sad exactly, so much as pensive. This doesn't mean the film failed to exact empathy in its viewers, though. It just means that despite the abject sadness that underpins Lost Girls, the story is bigger than the movie it's in.

Lost Girls is available now to watch on Netflix.

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