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On Netflix: LOST GIRLS (2020)

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LOST GIRLS
(US - 2020)

Directed by Liz Garbus. Written by Michael Werwie. Cast: Amy Ryan, Gabriel Byrne, Thomasin McKenzie, Lola Kirke, Oona Laurence, Dean Winters, Miriam Shor, Reed Birney, Kevin Corrigan, Stan Carp, Molly Brown, Ana Reeder, Grace Capeless, Jimi Stanton, Matthew F. O'Connor, Brian Adam DeJesus, James Liao, Jared Johnston. (R, 95 mins)

Between HBO's THE WIRE and supporting roles in acclaimed films like CAPOTE and BEFORE THE DEVIL KNOWS YOU'RE DEAD, Amy Ryan was already on the radar when her breakout performance in 2007's GONE BABY GONE earned her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar nod (she lost to Tilda Swinton in MICHAEL CLAYTON). She had a recurring role on THE OFFICE, co-starred in 2014's Best Picture Oscar winner BIRDMAN and has appeared in numerous smaller indie films, but A-list stardom never happened for her, and the Netflix Original film LOST GIRLS is one of the very few times post-GONE BABY GONE where she's been given a substantive lead role. Of course, there's some surface similarities with her GONE BABY GONE character, which was probably instrumental in getting her the part after Sarah Paulson dropped out during pre-production. LOST GIRLS, subtitled "An Unsolved American Mystery," deals with the Long Island Serial Killer case over 2010-2011, which had several persons of interest who were questioned, but to this day, no one has been charged. The disappearance of Jersey City escort Shannan Gilbert--last seen running from a client's house in a private beachfront community in Oak Beach in Suffolk County, when she called 911 and it took the cops nearly an hour to arrive--inadvertently leads to the discovery of four bodies (none of them Shannan's) buried in burlap sacks along a remote stretch of Ocean Parkway on the outskirts of the area. The cops on the case, led by the useless Bostick (Dean Winters, cast radically against type as "Dean Winters") aren't really taking any of it seriously, essentially sweeping it under the rug because the victims are "just hookers," which obviously doesn't sit well with Shannan's mother Mari (Ryan), who lives two and a half hours away in Ellenville. Police commissioner Dorman (Gabriel Byrne, previously teamed with Ryan on HBO's IN TREATMENT and in 2016's little-seen LOUDER THAN BOMBS) is facing a PR nightmare and his own possible dismissal after some previous mishandled cases, and isn't prepared to deal with Mari, a blunt woman with no fear of confrontation, but with plenty of her own flaws that end up coming out during the investigation.





A single mother of three, Mari made some questionable decisions during Shannan's childhood, including giving her up when she unable to cope with her then-12-year-old daughter's diagnosis of bipolar disorder while still working two jobs, paying the bills, and raising her two younger girls. She now puts Shannan on a pedestal, despite being frequently blown off for planned dinners, always giving her a pass because she floats some money Mari's way when she's short. Mari never asks where the money comes from, and prefers to be in denial over Shannan being a sex worker, though the younger girls--Sherre (Thomasin McKenzie of LEAVE NO TRACE and JOJO RABBIT) and Sarra (Oona Laurence)--know more than they let on. Mari's own investigation comes about after a mysterious phone call from a Dr. Hackett, who claims to run a home for "wayward girls" and said he treated Shannan on the night she disappeared. She's stonewalled time and again by apathetic cops who don't seem very interested in checking security cameras in the area or looking into the fact that Dr. Hackett (Reed Birney) has a bunch of burlap sacks in a shed behind his house, a tidbit of info brought to her attention by his neighbor Joe Scalise (Kevin Corrigan), whose tips are dismissed by Dorman when he finds out Scalise is a paranoid conspiracy theorist who's had numerous property disputes with Hackett.


Much of LOST GIRLS focuses on Mari's reluctant bond with a group of women whose sisters and daughters were among the four unearthed bodies, all escorts and prostitutes and thus, viewed with scornful derision by the cops and the upright citizens of Oak Park, who look the other way, pull their shades, and close their curtains when Mari comes snooping around. One of the women is Kim (Lola Kirke), who also works as an escort and comes to be viewed by Mari as a surrogate for Shannan, which leads to McKenzie being forced into a somewhat hackneyed "I'm still here!" speech by Sherre. LOST GIRLS is the first narrative project for veteran documentary filmmaker Liz Garbus (GIRLHOOD, BOBBY FISCHER AGAINST THE WORLD), and even with a powerful performance by Ryan, the subject cries out for a true-crime-style examination. There's simply too much to the case to condense it all down to 95 minutes, giving it a rushed feel that has to cut too many corners in the early going to push the story along.


The way it's presented here, it looks like the four bodies are found right after Shannan disappears. In reality, it was seven months later. And Mari's transformation into a dogged sleuth ten minutes into the film seems a little unlikely. More remains are found in another area of Suffolk County, including a pair of dismembered legs tied to remains found elsewhere in 1996 (!), and there's significant hints of police corruption and some kind of cover-up, but LOST GIRLS doesn't have the time or space to go into it. Nor does it have time to delve into a part of the story that broadens the scope of this unspeakable tragedy: Sarra Gilbert, whose psychological troubles are mentioned in passing here and only grew worse following Shannan's disappearance and the later discovery of her remains in a marsh adjacent to Hackett's property, was later diagnosed as schizophrenic, and in 2016, killed Mari after going off her meds. That's only mentioned in almost "yadda yadda" fashion in an onscreen text at the end of the film. There's a larger story here that would best be served by Garbus' proven skills as a documentarian. What's here is the kind of actor's showcase that a jobbing pro like Ryan deserves, and she's absolutely convincing unleashing her fury at the do-nothing cops (Bostick: "Look, honey, why don't you let the police do their job?" Mari: "Why don't you suck my dick?"). And it's suitably compelling on its own terms, with a meeting between a nervous Mari and the overly folksy Hackett kinda sorta reminding you of that incredibly intense basement sequence in ZODIAC, but as is happening more and more with today's trend of serialized binge-watching, LOST GIRLS probably would've been more effective as a multi-episode documentary series.

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