REVIEW: Lost Girls (2020)

Release Poster – Netflix

The following is a review of Lost Girls — Directed by Liz Garbus.

Netflix is starting to build itself a strong reputation for being a good home for true-crime content. There are numerous Netflix exclusive true-crime docu-series and films that I have been very fascinated by. The latest true-crime content from Netflix is Lost Girls, the narrative film debut from the seasoned documentary film director, Liz Garbus, who I don’t think, ultimately, does enough with this incredible true story.

Liz Garbus’ Lost Girls tells the true story of a mother’s struggle to find her daughter, and, at the same time, the discovery of the Long Island serial killer’s burial ground. The film follows Mari Gilbert (played by Amy Ryan), a mother of three daughters, who works two jobs for the good of her two daughters that still live at home. When her oldest daughter, Shannan, seems to disappear from the face of the Earth, Mari is relentless in her search for her daughter, even though law enforcement is, at first, dismissive of the case because Shannan worked as a prostitute. When a police officer accidentally finds a burial ground in the area where Shannan disappeared, Mari desperately drives law enforcement to focus on every detail of the disappearance, even though she points them in directions they are initially unwilling to investigate.

I admire the confidence it takes to reveal to an audience at the very beginning of the film that the mystery they are about to see a film about is unsolved. I can imagine that there will be individuals who have very little interest in watching a narrative that may be unfulfilled. Of course, there are some truly excellent thrillers based on unsolved true-crime such as David Fincher’s Zodiac or Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder. Both films focus on obsessed individuals losing themselves and their own in their all-consuming investigation.

The same is true of Garbus’ film. Here Amy Ryan’s Mari Gilbert basically leads the missing person investigation on her own, and she uproots her family to lead that investigation. Lost Girls perhaps resembles Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri more than the aforementioned films because of its focus on a mother’s relentless battle to get law enforcement to investigate her daughter’s disappearance. However, unlike McDonagh’s film, Garbus never tries to add a comedic tone to the film’s scenes. What sets this film apart from Fincher and Bong’s masterful films about true crime is Garbus’ focus on female solidarity and victim-shaming, as we see multiple women standing up for their lost daughters or sisters who the media and law enforcement refer to dismissively as ‘prostitutes.’

Amy Ryan, in arguably her best role since Gone Baby Gone, is quite good, and she gets several moments to shine as a relentless character who is deeply frustrated by law enforcement’s inadequacies. Although I do think she is underused, Thomasin McKenzie, whose star is slowly rising thanks to appearances in Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace, David Michôd’s The King, and Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit, gives the second-most important performance in the film as the only one of the daughters that can confront Mari. The characterization of law enforcement is not as interesting, however. Dean Winters’ character is defined by dismissiveness and victim-shaming, whereas Gabriel Byrne’s commissioner is a more calming presence even as his character is weary of the case. Furthermore, the subplot concerning Lola Kirke’s character felt a little bit too cliched.

The ending of the film is quite powerful for multiple reasons, but it is also bizarrely shocking in a way that makes you question why the film didn’t focus more on a somewhat underexplored relationship in the film. At the end of the film, a closing text describes what happened to Mari Gilbert after the events of the film. What happened is such a shock that it makes you look at the film differently. I have to ask that if there is so much story left after the events of Lost Girls, then why didn’t this seasoned documentary director just make a thorough docu-series, instead of limiting the true story to such an extent?

Garbus does a good job of thrusting Amy Ryan’s character and her anger into the spotlight by focusing on themes like victim-shaming. It is somewhat admirable to let audiences know upfront that the mystery that the film is based around will by the end of the runtime be unsolved, but, even still, Lost Girls is fairly frustrating. It feels frustratingly unfulfilled because of the narrow scope of the film, but not because the mystery at the center of the film is unsolved. The film’s closing text makes it clear that there is more to the story than what Garbus has presented us with. Therefore I, ultimately, disagree with Garbus’ decision to turn this story into a narrative feature film, especially when she is so good at making exhaustive documentaries.

5.5 out of 10

– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.

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