Lost Girls REVIEW – Netflix Does Lifetime

A docu-series might have done more justice to the source material.

Lost Girls, directed by Liz Garbus, is an adaptation of the book (also titled Lost Girls) by Robert Kolker. The issue here is that the most engaging part of the book is lost on the big screen. Kolker’s book is riveting, horrifying, and highlights all the lost girls. He humanises them, showing us what lies underneath the labels the media has given them. Yes, they were sex workers looking for work on Craigslist, leaving themselves victim to the dangerous people who exist on the internet, but they were also someone’s family member, someone’s daughter or sister.

For Garbus’ film, the focus is mainly on the Gilbert family, and Mari Gilbert (Amy Ryan) in particular. Mari’s daughter Shannan went missing, and it is in the midst of searching for Shannan that they discover the bodies of other women, littered down the coast of Long Island. This was when they discovered they had a serial killer on their hands, and they would go on to discover numerous other bodies. The travesty is that until today, the Long Island Serial Killer (LISK) has yet to be caught. Prior to this film, I had watched a docu-series on LISK titled The Killing Season (an excellent series that I heartily recommend), so I was familiar with LISK and the investigations.

This film leaves out LISK for the most part, which I understand since its focus is on the women, but besides the Gilbert family, I don’t get a proper sense of the rest of the girls. Their names and faces are shown briefly, their family members show up, but there isn’t much more to it, their stories shoved aside in favour of highlighting Mari’s plight.

Ryan’s Mari comes across as this heroine type figure, the movie glossing over her flaws and elevating her as a mother who never gave up despite the lack of cooperation from the police, who are rendered grossly inapt in this film. The men in general are villainised; the police commissioner (Gabriel Byrne) is incompetent, Shannan’s boyfriend is abusive and her driver left her to fend for herself on that fateful night. There is point to be made here about women’s bodies in the hands of men, but instead all the movie seems to be saying is “women good, men bad”.

Mari herself is simply not relatable as a protagonist. We are shown early on her fury at not getting more shifts at one of her jobs, which means money is tight and she is struggling to make ends meet. This is a fact the film loses sight of as it goes on, with that struggle disappearing as Mari throws herself into the investigation. Show me the odds that she had to overcome to get justice for her daughter, instead of her and the commissioner doing the same song and dance at every moment in the film: she yells at him to do better, he politely tells her they are doing everything they can, a sequence that repeats itself ad nauseam in the film.

Her two daughters in the movie, Sherre (Thomasin McKenzie) and Sarra Gilbert (Oona Laurence) are bland and colourless. Sarra is suffering from schizophrenia and is on mood stabilizers for the bulk of the film, so much so that she disappears from it altogether. McKenzie’s Sherre takes on the role of moral compass, there to call her mother out on her flaws and lies, but none of it feels convincing or bears consequence.

The film doesn’t do much visually as well, its texture derived from the same playbook as a Lifetime movie, where the melodrama takes centre-stage more than the real issues at play, which in the end, takes away from the plight and suffering of the lost girls, who deserved better than this film.

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Lost Girls is a watered down adaptation of its excellent source material, so much so that viewers are better served reading the book.