Director Liz Garbus is known for her documentaries. She makes her dramatic feature film debut on Netflix with “Lost Girls” and her transition is nearly seamless. Her film is based on a nonfiction book by Robert Kolker which highlighted five sex workers who were murdered by the yet unidentified Long Island serial killer. The film (written for the screen by Michael Werwie) focuses on one mother and her pursuit of the truth following the disappearance of her daughter.
Amy Ryan plays Mari Gilbert, a coarse and world-weary single mother who works multiple jobs to make ends meet. Life is hard for Mari who struggles to afford medication for her schizophrenic youngest daughter Sarra (Oona Laurence) while mending her strained relationship with her oldest Shannon. Her middle daughter Sherre (delicately and tenderly played by Thomasin McKenzie) often finds herself lost in the shuffle but she still stands by her mom regardless of how rough things may get.
The true story of Mari Gilbert was sad and tragic. The movie conveys much of that but does minimize its focus on a specific time window. Shannon disappears while working as an escort in the Oak Beach area of Long Island but not before making a harrowing 911 call. Having her fill of the local police department’s apathy and incompetence, a rightfully angry and determined Mari fiercely pushes back, forcing the guilt-ridden commissioner (Gabriel Byrne) to reevaluate the case.
Ryan’s performance is raw and ferocious, authentically portraying a woman fueled by pain and indignation. But her Mari is also full of complexities. She loves her girls but we learn several ugly secrets yanked from her true story. It makes her an uncomfortable protagonist but still very much a sympathetic one. It’s easy to have empathy for her and her daughters especially when looking at them through the lens of class and social hardships. But Garbus and Werwie add dimensions that firmly root her in reality.
And I can’t say enough about Thomasin McKenzie. She has already left strong impressions in “Leave No Trace” and “Jojo Rabbit”. Here she’s given a much different role but brings the same earnest, softhearted sentiment. In many ways her character is the film’s emotional anchor, offering a more centered perspective on the stressed family dynamic. McKenzie has shown to be a steady, understated actress and she continues to make smart choices when it comes to picking roles.
“Lost Girls” is a gritty, clear-eyed look at a mother’s pain, regret, fury, and persistence. It’s about a family on the ropes well before the disappearance takes place. It’s about listening to women and taking their claims seriously. It doesn’t sell as well when it shifts to detective/police procedural mode. These scenes are a little more uneven and not given enough attention to be effective. But it’s when Garbus gets back to the family (which is the meat of the story) that the film is its most heartbreaking.
VERDICT – 3.5 STARS