LOST GIRLS (2020) is a Netflix-original movie based on the nonfiction book Lost Girls An Unsolved American Mystery by Robert Kolker, which chronicled the still unsolved murders committed by the Long Island Serial Killer. I read this book when it first came out, and it remains one of the best books I’ve read this past decade.
Lost Girls An Unsolved American Mystery is a meticulously researched and compelling read that tells the story of the victims and their families, a fascinating narrative made more so by the fact that the killer remains at large.
Now comes the movie LOST GIRLS, and since I had been so impressed with the book, I was eager to see this one.
In LOST GIRLS (2020) it’s 2010, and Mari Gilbert (Amy Ryan) is a single mom who works two jobs to support her two daughters, Sherre (Thomasin McKenzie) a senior in high school who is hoping to be able to afford community college, and Sarra (Oona Lawrence) who’s in middle school and struggling with mental health issues. When Mari’s oldest daughter Shannan, who doesn’t live with them but does send money to them regularly, fails to show up for a promised dinner date with the family, Mari shrugs it off, but when Shannan’s boyfriend calls Sherre, something he has never done before, looking for her, and when she doesn’t respond to her messages on her phone, Mari begins to worry.
Getting no help from the police, Mari investigates on her own and learns the shocking truth that Shannan worked as a prostitute and was last seen in Oak Beach, New York, a private community on Long Island. She also learns some very disturbing facts, like her daughter made a 911 call screaming for help, and the police didn’t arrive on the scene until nearly an hour later. Shannan reportedly ran screaming down the streets of Oak Beach, and no one claimed to have seen or heard anything. Also, the security camera footage on those very streets from that night was erased, a camera controlled by the man who would later become a person of interest.
Mari makes her presence known to the local police and eventually is able to engage in face to face dialogue with Police Commissioner Richard Dormer (Gabriel Byrne) who pleads with her to remain patient, but she has no intention of doing so. Eventually, the remains of several bodies are found in the woods around Oak Beach, and it’s determined that a serial killer has been at work.
The victims’ families get together and form a support group and eventually hold a vigil on the streets of Oak Beach, all in an effort to memorialize their daughters’ lives. Mari makes the point that she wants them remembered as daughters, sisters, and women, not as prostitutes.
While the police do step up their investigation, Mari is there every step of the way, prodding them, and pointing out their shortcomings, like calling them out for refusing to search the densely wooded swamp area behind the main suspect’s house.
I wish I could say LOST GIRLS the movie was as hard-hitting and as moving as the book, but it’s not. It makes its points, but it does so briefly and without much depth. The film is short, clocking in at 95 minutes, and as such never really gives the subject its due.
I was able to fill in the blanks because I had read the book, but I wonder if folks who haven’t read the book would be able to do the same. The book was exhaustively researched. The reader really felt the scope and magnitude of what these families were going through, what it must have felt like to have daughters murdered and the police doing little about it. The book also chronicled in detail the police investigation and the problems it faced, mostly due to ineptitude. The movie focuses more on Mari and her one on one meetings with Commissioner Dormer. The scope just isn’t the same.
The book was haunting. For the longest time afterwards, I couldn’t get it out of my mind. The movie is much more superficial. It has its moments, but there are far too few of them.
Amy Ryan is excellent as Mari Gilbert. She gives a powerful performance, and as we learn that Mari is driven by the guilt of her past, how she couldn’t handle Shannan as a child and gave her up to a foster family, Ryan shows us the scars of the character and how she uses them to find the strength to be the mother she wanted to be when her daughter was still alive. When Dormer says that Shannan’s fate is not on her, she replies tellingly “I’m her mother. It’s all on me.” It’s one of the film’s more powerful moments. I wish there had been more of these.
This is one of Ryan’s strongest performances to date, adding to the quality work she has already done in such films as THE INFILTRATOR (2016) and BRIDGE OF SPIES (2015).
Thomasin McKenzie is one of my favorite young actresses working today, as she has delivered some powerhouse performances in films like JOJO RABBIT (2019) and LEAVE NO TRACE (2018). Her role here as middle daughter Sherre is much more limited than her roles in the aforementioned movies, and as such she doesn’t have a whole lot to do in this movie, which is too bad, because she’s a great talent.
Gabriel Byrne is perfect as the tired and weary Police Commissioner Richard Dormer. While he wishes Mari would just go away, he never really tells her to do so, and in the movie anyway, seems sympathetic to her requests. We also learn immediately what kind of predicament he’s in, because at the outset, we are privy to a phone conversation in which he’s told point-blank that if he doesn’t downplay the serial killer angle he will lose his job.
I enjoyed Lola Kirke’s performance as Kim, a sister to one of the victims and a fellow prostitute. Her conversations with Mari are some of the better ones in the movie, and you almost get the sense that Mari feels like she’s talking to Shannan when she’s giving advice to Kim.
Dean Winters plays a smug and uncaring police detective and sort of stands in as the face of police incompetence here. And Reed Birney does a wonderfully creepy job as the outwardly “oh so helpful” Dr. Peter Hackett who for a long time was a major person of interest and suspect in the case. The scene where he puts his hands on Mari’s shoulders will give you chills. We just saw Birney in THE HUNT (2020), and he’s been in a ton of movies and TV shows.
The screenplay by Michael Werwie based on Robert Kolker’s book is not really a strength of this movie. It tells the story it has to tell, in that it gets in and gets out without any fluff, but it also doesn’t dig deep. It’s all very superficial, and without having read the book, it would be easy to dismiss it as just another serial killer story, albeit one based on true events. But it’s so much more than that. It’s the story of the victims and their families, and while the movie goes through the motions to say as much, there are few moments where it really tugs at your heart and makes you feel their plight and pain.
In the book these families go through hell. In the movie, scenes cut away and finish long before they should. Sharper dialogue would have gone a long way towards bringing these families’ stories to life.
Liz Garbus directed LOST GIRLS, and the result is an efficient production, and it’s all competently handled. I didn’t, however, get a strong sense of place. Oak Beach should have been a setting so disturbing I could smell the death there, but the camera never gets anywhere that close to make me feel that way.
And there simply are not a lot of heightened emotional moments here, which is surprising considering the subject matter.
Still, I recommend LOST GIRLS. It tells a disturbing story, one that needs to be told, but it does it in a way that may leave you with more questions than answers. As such, if you see this movie and feel you want to learn more, I highly recommend the book Lost Girls An Unsolved American Mystery by Robert Kolker
Unlike the movie, the book is thoroughly comprehensive and as such is an incredibly moving and tragic read.