It’s a true crime story made real
The film dramatizes a true crime mystery, and is based on the 2013 book, Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery by investigative reporter Robert Kolker.
In May 2010, 24-year-old sex worker Shannan Gilbert went to a client’s house in a seaside community of Long Island, NY. At some point, she ran from the home terrified, seeking help at a nearby residence, calling 911 and screaming, “They’re trying to kill me.” Shannan ran off and was never seen alive again.
The investigation into her disappearance would inadvertently lead to the discovery of 10 bodies hidden in the dense brush and dunes along the shoreline. The bodies were mostly women employed as sex workers, as well as the child of one of the victims (only six have been identified).
In 2011, Shannan Gilbert’s body was found in a marsh not far from where she was last seen. The police deemed her death an accidental drowning. Gilbert’s mother, Mari Gilbert (played by Amy Ryan in the film) didn’t buy the explanation. An independent autopsy suggested Shannan had been murdered.
The film begins with Shannan’s terrifying last night and spans the investigation into her disappearance and its many frustrations for victims’ families. The story centres on the efforts of Shannan’s mother, Mari, to see her daughter’s case and life treated with the care and respect she deserves.
Cruel sexist clichés are challenged
The death of a sex worker has been the set up to a joke for, well, forever. In 1998, the film Very Bad Things even took this cultural cliché as its central comic conceit. As critics like The New York Times’ Manohla Dargis point out, Lost Girls represents that rare cultural product that humanizes the women behind the designation, emphasizing their vulnerability and their status as people—daughters, sisters, mothers. It’s a powerful rejection of a cultural legacy that perpetually asserts the inhumanity and disposability of these girls and women.
As the character of Mari says to one of the officers investigating her daughter’s disappearance, “don’t you ever f–king call my daughter a prostitute again.”
It’s a great debut feature
Lost Girls is the feature debut of Academy Award-nominated documentarian Liz Garbus (What Happened, Miss Simone?). Humane, scrappy and imbued with moral clarity, it announces the talent of a female director whose future work I eagerly await.
The film’s humanity is its greatest strength. Lost Girls doesn’t fall into virtuous or villainous cliché, and the drama feels richer for it. Mari Gilbert is not a perfect mother. Her daughter is not a perfect victim. But Mari forcefully rejects any and every attempt to make her feel as if she or her daughter deserved what happened. As Gilbert, Amy Ryan isn’t having it. It’s a raw, angry performance that also makes space for Gilbert’s feelings of guilt, regret and sorrow.
Gilbert is the film’s moral centre—she is faster, smarter and bolder than her detractors. She does not accept the police or the media’s attempts to “explain” the murder of young women by blaming her or her daughter. A relentless advocate for victims and a necessary cultural agitator, her lightning-quick response to one officer’s attempt to shame her mothering made me hoot with delight.
You’ll get a unflinching look at police and police culture
Cops that show up an hour late to answer a young woman’s terrifying 911 call. A detective that laments “who spends this much time looking for a missing hooker?” A retirement party filled with bored cops watching young women strip. Lost Girls eschews the usual murder mystery’s lionization of police officers and plucky detectives, and instead reveals layers of incompetence, indifference and sexism that will enrage, infuriate and resonate.
No one individual is scapegoated for these sins, and the police are humanized, too. Rather the systems and patriarchal ideologies that shore up the moral calculations of a complicit culture are indicted.
It places a moral mystery before the audience
“Why are our girls to blame at the exclusion of everybody else?” asks a heartbroken Mari Gilbert.
That is the real mystery of Lost Girls—the one staring us in the face—and one that demands an answer.