'Lost Girls': Film Review | Sundance 2020

Courtesy of Sundance
Cold case.
3/13/2020

Liz Garbus' narrative feature debut, based on the famously unsolved Long Island serial murders, stars Amy Ryan as a mother spurred by police inaction to investigate her daughter's disappearance.

Netflix seriously raised the bar on the true-crime police procedural with Unbelievable, its shattering, forensically detailed miniseries about the hunt for a serial rapist. That standard of excellence does no favors to this poorly scripted feature from the streaming platform, based on the unsolved Long Island Serial Killer case in which more than a dozen sex workers were murdered over a period of almost 20 years. Grim and gritty though seldom emotionally affecting, Lost Girls loses momentum just like the half-assed investigation of cops whose possible corruption is coyly suggested but unexplored, leaving another hole in an already incomplete story.

Playing a variation on her more indelible role in Gone Baby Gone, Amy Ryan's hard-charging performance as enraged mother Mari Gilbert, who rails against police inaction and lights a fire under the investigation of her missing daughter Shannan, is the movie's chief strength.

There's value also in its spotlight on the apathy of law enforcement toward violence against prostitutes, and the prejudicial tendency to regard the victims as criminals, erasing their identities as vulnerable women. The intention to show how the justice system failed these forgotten women is honorable, but the dramatic execution is lacking.

Lost Girls marks a disappointing move into narrative features for accomplished documentarian Liz Garbus, whose gift for compelling fact-based storytelling is not reflected in the pedestrian screenplay by Michael Werwie (Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile), inspired by journalist Robert Kolker's book, Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery. Perhaps the material would have lent itself more readily to nonfiction screen treatment, but Garbus struggles to find the pulse in the story and her skill with actors is not sufficiently developed to create much spark among the characters, despite some fiery speeches. Nor does the film offer much visual interest, shot mostly in sludgy greens and grays.

Mari works two jobs, operating heavy machinery on a construction site as well as doing counter service at a local diner in blue-collar Ellenville, N.Y. She has two daughters at home, Sherre (Thomasin McKenzie) and Sarra (Oona Laurence), the latter on medication for what would eventually be diagnosed as schizophrenia. Shannan, now in her early 20s, moved away from the family and into foster care from age 12, after her mother became unable to handle her bipolar disorder or afford proper treatment. When she fails to show for a planned dinner, and neither her family nor her scuzzy boyfriend (Brian Adam DeJesus) is able to reach her by phone, Mari goes to the police.

She gets no satisfaction from her initial encounters with an unsympathetic detective (a sneering Dean Winters) who bristles at Mari's feisty manner, or from the police commissioner almost fired for mismanaging his department (Gabriel Byrne, pretty much sleepwalking). So Mari starts banging on doors, posting flyers and making the residents uncomfortable in the gated Oak Beach community on Long Island where Shannan was last seen after fleeing in a hysterical state from the home of a john and making a panicked 911 call to which cops took an hour to respond.

A police dog purely by chance picks up a scent that leads to the discovery of four bodies on Long Island beaches, all of them identified as sex workers hired, like Shannan, off Craigslist. This brings the mothers and sisters of those women together for a vigil, and while Mari keeps her distance at first, she becomes the group's natural leader, protesting the bias in media coverage and the indifference of the police.

What follows is a suspense-free account of the ensuing investigation, with Mari exposing mishandling of the case at every turn, suggesting that the private residents of Oak Beach have friends in the Suffolk County PD to keep things quiet. She gets a tip from an insider (Kevin Corrigan) pointing her toward a prominent doctor in the community (Reed Birney). But despite his suspicious behavior, no grounds for an arrest are established, and while more bodies keep turning up, the procedural aspect of the drama more or less just fizzles out — perhaps a hazard of making a narrative film about any unsolved case.

Werwie's script tries to build some emotional heft into the pain of the grieving families, but only Lola Kirke as a young woman whose sister was among the first bodies found, and who has her own associations with the sex trade, has anything meaty to play.

In the principal roles, McKenzie has tender moments and eruptions of anger as she learns the truth about Shannan's separation from the family, and Ryan shows regret and gnawing sorrow beneath her tough-as-nails exterior as Mari appears to reflect on her past mistakes. But all of this is curiously uninvolving, hitting many of the required beats but generating little feeling for the individual characters, only indignation over the low priority given such cases by legal authorities.

There's more punch in the end credits when footage of the real Mari at a news conference is followed by screen text detailing her own tragic outcome.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Distribution: Netflix
Production companies: Langley Park Pictures, Archer Gray

Cast: Amy Ryan, Thomasin McKenzie, Lola Kirke, Gabriel Byrne, Oona Laurence, Dean Winters, Miriam Shor, Reed Birney, Kevin Corrigan, Stan Carp, Brian Adam DeJesus
Director: Liz Garbus
Screenwriter: Michael Werwie, inspired by the book Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery, by Robert Kolker
Producers: Anne Carey, Kevin McCormick
Executive producers: Liz Garbus, Rory Koslow, Amy Nauiokas, Vinay Singh, Carrie Fix
Director of photography: Igor Martinovic
Production designer: Lisa Myers
Costume designer: Marci Rodgers
Music: Anne Nikitin
Editor: Camilla Toniolo
Casting: Laura Rosenthal, Maribeth Fox

Rated R, 95 minutes