Lost Girls Review: Garbus’ narrative debut keeps it real in all the right ways
While director Liz Garbus is mostly known for making documentaries, she shows that her talents aren’t limited to just docs as her narrative feature debut, Lost Girls, tackles a gripping true story with a genuine heart and personal touch.
The film follows Mari Gilbert (Amy Ryan), a working-class single mother who constantly struggles to give her daughters the best life. Her relationship with her oldest daughter, Shannan, is rocky and has caused them to go their separate ways and keep secrets from one another. However, after Shannan goes missing and the police seem uninterested in finding her, Mari begins to investigate into a gated Long Island Community – the last place she was seen. Through her investigation, not only does her and Shannan’s secrets come to light, but also that her disappearance could be connected to murders of over a dozen sex workers.
Unlike most mysteries like Lost Girls, the film isn’t focused on figuring out who or what exactly happened in Shannan’s disappearance because the answers aren’t known. Right in title, it declares that this is an unsolved case so there’s no reveal or full clarification coming because there isn’t one in real life. To this day, Shannan’s case, along with dozens of other women is still cold and it’s not really about finding those answers necessarily. However, this doesn’t make Lost Girls any less thrilling or meaningful as it focuses on a more personal story about cases like Shannan’s and the determination and downfalls Mari goes through in trying to solve it.
From seeing how the police and media depict Shannan and other victims because of their profession to how Mari’s broken past with her makes people cast doubt and focus on the wrong things, it’s easy to connect to why cases like Shannan’s stay cold and are generally dismissed so easily. The obstacles that Mari faces are ones that don’t feel like that should even be there but are because of the way people view Shannan’s disappearance and Mari’s parenting. In some ways that’s what makes Lost Girls an authentic telling of a real story because of how it puts the real-life perceptions and emotions that were a part of the real-life case at the forefront of the film.
The moments where Mari and her daughters are talking with the family members of the other victims found are very strong and the emotional high points of the film. Their initial meeting together digs up a lot of different ways they’re handling the grief of their similar situations and the way they that Mari struggles to relate to them, with Shannan still being alive at the time, comes off very real. The film does a great job slowly having them connect with one another and it makes the growth that Mari has and their effect on one another very genuine and relatable. The film is really about people with the world on their shoulders trying to find solace in their grief and it’s even more touching because of how Garbus keeps it real with her direction.
Ryan is incredibly riveting as Mari and is a true force to be reckoned with in creating connective emotion with her desperately trying to find answers. Every step of the way you can feel all of the anger she has in the lack of help she is receiving, the determination she has in finding answers, and the resentment she has towards herself for maybe making the wrong choices. It’s a highly emotional performance that viewers will be invested in throughout and comes in a way that never feels over-dramatic, but rather incredibly genuine.
There’s also a strong and subtle supporting performance from Thomasin McKenzie as Mari’s daughter Sherre as she carries each scene with a quiet anger and maturity that creates a really interesting argument later in the film. With Mari being out and about with work and other things, Sherre sort of acts like another adult in the room and McKenzie evokes this the entire way through and puts in another performance that declares her a true name to watch.
It’s also refreshing how the film doesn’t paint Mari as a perfect mother figure as there are plenty of great moments that flesh out her issues and mistakes. Mari’s parenting isn’t always perfect, and the film isn’t afraid to acknowledge this and let its main characters flaws or struggles come into the story. From why Shannan and her relationship crumbles to how she keeps secrets and doesn’t pay as much attention to Sherre or her youngest daughter Sarra (Oona Laurance), the film and characters aren’t afraid to confront how she handles things and question if her decisions are the right ones. However, these flaws never take away from Mari and rather create a complexity that’ll make viewers more interested and possibly even want to understand her experience more.
The only real flaws that come out of Lost Girls are with its male supporting characters as there’s very little balance or detail given to them – even though they play a decently big role in the whole film. Commissioner Dormer (Gabriel Byrne) isn’t all that special and there could’ve been more moments between him and Mari to give his final turn of heart more emotional weight. Joe Scalise (Kevin Corrigan) plays a big role in helping Mari uncover secrets, but his whole reasoning for being there is quickly done in one line and he felt like a forced and random aspect thrown into the plot. Certain characters, like Detective Bostick (Dean Winters) and Dr. Hackett (Reed Birney) also come off a little too strong and so unlikable that you kind of just peg them as red herrings just because of how much of cocky jerks they are.
Lost Girls is a deeply enriching and emotional experience thanks to how Garbus makes the real-life story actually feel real and Ryan’s dominating and deeply moving lead performance. It’s another strong film in Netflix’s already powerful library and certainly worth watching for anyone who is looking to be shocked and invested into a truly tragic story in a new kind of way.