Lost Girls is inspired by true events detailed in Robert Kolker’s book, Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery. The film is an intimate depiction of Mari Gilbert’s relentless efforts to find out what happened to her daughter Shannon. The 24-year-old escort went missing in May 2010, and the police didn’t do much to find her even though Shannon had called 911 while running for her life in the private community of Oak Beach in Suffolk County on Long Island. Her 911 call was made as she was being … chased? Attacked? Killed? We don’t know exactly what happened to her, but we do know that it took the police more than an hour to respond and arrive on the scene. Shannon’s remains weren’t found until over a year later, in December 2011.

In the film, Mari’s efforts to get the police to actively look for Shannon lead to the remains of four females wrapped in burlap. Finding those remains lead to the discovery of, and investigation into, the unsolved murders of 10 to 16 people, most of whom were women associated with the sex industry on Long Island’s South Shore barrier islands. The crimes, which took place from 1996 to 2013, were committed by the Long Island Serial Killer, who has never been identified or caught. The film includes four female relatives of the first four bodies found; rallying around Mari’s forceful personality and supporting her in her efforts to get the police to search for Shannon, they are a small band of similarly poor mothers and sisters of four murdered “lost” girls.

Some phrases that “devolved” in my mind within the first 15 minutes of the movie:

  • Institutional misogyny
  • Devaluation of women
  • Devaluation of the poor
  • Discrimination against the poor
  • Discrimination against women
  • Women as sex objects
  • Discarded women
  • Invisible girls
  • Evil psycho men
  • Stupid, insensitive, misogynist cops (sorry, fellows, but in this case, they’re men)

Lost Girls premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and was released by Netflix on March 13. I watched it in early April, a few weeks into Indiana’s state-mandated COVID-19 quarantine / lockdown. The film suited my “bad mood feelings” in many ways. It’s been difficult to feel perky under a surreal cloud of quarantine caused by a potential deadly virus. The gray skies of March and early April seem particularly apt this year in relation to the depressing, scary atmosphere caused by this global pandemic. The film, with its beautifully filmed gray skies and cold, windswept scenes (even the indoor scenes are similarly grayish and chilly), eerily match our real-life COVID-19 atmosphere.

The film visually reminded me a lot of 2003’s Mystic River. Directed by documentary filmmaker Liz Garbus, Lost Girls achieves the same raw, stark and hopeless mood. Garbus gives us a film that tells a true story without feeling like a documentary. The film benefits from amazing work in all behind-the-scenes technical areas that can make or break movies, including appropriately moody music (Anne Nikitin) and gorgeous cinematography (Igor Martinovic). The writing credits go to Robert Kolker (book) and Michael Werwie; some reviews cite uneven storytelling, but the film works because of the look and feel of it, and its picture-perfect cast.

The always believable Amy Ryan portrays Mari, the poor, rather trashy mother of three girls, the oldest of which is the missing Shannon. Mari and her daughters’ backstory is told slowly as the film progresses, but you know in the first scenes that 1) Mari is the mother you don’t want to have or be, and 2) her daughters’ lives are lives that you don’t want to live and you don’t want your own daughters to live. Despite those truths, Mari and her daughters are 100% sympathetic; you feel for them every step of the way (even as your brain says, many times during the movie, “I would NEVER do that as a mother”).

Mari is a single parent; there is no mention in the film of a father (to any of the girls). In the early scenes, we know Shannon left home when she was 16; she sends money home and visits every once in while. Her visits seem to be a special treat for Mari; before said visits, it’s Mari’s habit to watch an old videotape of a Shannon as a young girl singing the song “Beautiful Dreamer.” The other two daughters are mildly annoyed by that, but it’s clear they both also look forward to seeing their elder sister. Mari is a waitress at a diner, community college is a dream for middle daughter Sherre, and youngest daughter Sarra has recently been put on mood-stabilizing medication (in real life, Sarra was later diagnosed with schizophrenia).

Shannon’s life is not detailed at first; the fact that she is labeled a prostitute by the police and TV news media comes as a shock to her sisters. It’s clear to us that Mari knew this; we also know Mari didn’t object and we know Mari routinely accepted money from Shannon. Later, we find out that Shannon didn’t “leave home.” Instead, Mari “gave” Shannon to Social Services; Shannon was bipolar, and Mari had neither the money (for therapy and medications) nor the skills as a young mother to deal with the behaviors caused by that illness.

This family is, in many ways, a stereotype of the poor single-mother-with-a-history-of-bad-mothering family, which is presented as partially “why” the police and the media are insensitive about Shannon’s disappearance. My list of phrases earlier reflects my reaction to the many scenes in the film that include their lack of sensitivity toward the families of the missing girls. Dean Winters, Allstate’s “Mayhem like me” guy, represents the overall bad attitude of the cops: he has several scenes where his character expresses a doesn’t-care attitude about Shannon’s disappearance or he doesn’t take seriously the “clues” and “feelings” Mari brings to the police. To him, and the sniggering cops in the background, Shannon’s “just a prostitute” and Mari’s just a poor, trashy, “bad” mother.

Gabriel Byrne portrays Commissioner Dormer, who originally has the same prejudicial attitude toward Mari and the missing girls as the rest of the cops and media. I’ve said many times that I’ll watch anything with Byrne, and this is the best thing I’ve seen him in recently. His portrayal of a not really “bad” but not very “good” cop is both understated and effective. Byrne does a good job portraying a character who walks the line of being the scandal-in-his-past-cop-on-his-way-out — forced? retiring? seems like a little of both — and the only-cop-who-cares. We feel like investigating the case and getting to know Mari teaches Dormer something about how he, and his fellow cops, “see” women. That “lesson” is made obvious in the scene depicting Dormer’s retirement party, but to me, it wasn’t heavy-handed. Obvious, yes, but it felt true.

I won’t go into any more story details; you can watch the movie. It is a well-made film with compelling performances. It won’t brighten your day, it isn’t uplifting and it sure as hell doesn’t have a happy ending. The film ends with some written text that sheds light on what happened to some of the characters, including the sad and surreal ending for Mari. Yep, Lost Girls is definitely a fitting film for this surreal and sad time of COVID-19.