Before there were OTT exclusive movies, there were made-for-TV movies. Channels like Hallmark and Lifetime (catered specifically towards women) would regularly commission dramatic stories of love, loss and learning (usually based on true crime) that audiences would lap up in the afternoon. Netflix is somewhat successfully making its way as a leader in this race - it is already the home of crime documentaries and police procedural shows. Then, one would think that this would make Lost Girls a perfect addition to this roster. Unfortunately, the movie *feels* severely television, and perhaps that is not the treatment this thoughtful story deserved.
Based on Robert Kolker’s book about the notorious Long Island serial killer, who was believed to have massacred a string of sex workers, Lost Girls does present a police story with a unique perspective by humanising the protagonists in concern. While a heinous crime has taken place, the viewpoint is that of a mother, not a cop. Not a single day goes by when Mari (Amy Ryan) doesn’t remember her daughter Shannan. It’s like her presence lingers across the house where she lives with her two younger daughters. Even as Mari goes through her two menial jobs, the pain of separation remains. When it is discovered that Shannan, who became a sex worker, has now gone missing (and then, may have been mutilated), Mari starts her own search. As she struggles to come to terms with the truth and the futility of trying to find her daughter, the audience gets a glimpse into their uneasy relationship.
Lost Girls is, to be fair, neatly divided into four chapters - one, where Mari is suddenly faced with the task of getting the police to take the disappearance and subsequent murder of Shannan seriously. There is an underlying discomfort on their part, one where there is an obvious ignorance towards issues that plague women in ‘high-risk businesses.’ Second, where she takes the investigation (or lack thereof) in her own hands by constantly nagging the police and hanging ‘missing’ posters all over the town. Third, when the mystery of the disappearance is revealed, and finally, finding a small support group for women in the area who have gone through such a tragedy themselves. Making Mari far from perfect makes her story more personal, while the media coverage and both veer towards the narrative that the lack of belonging for ‘prostitutes’ is enough reason to condone lack of investigation.
All of this should, ideally, come together in a gripping story. But at the hands of documentary filmmaker Liz Garbus, known for Bobby Fischer Against the World and Girlhood, the more profound effect is experienced by using archival footage of the real Mari during the end credits, more than any other part of the film. Which isn’t to say that the actors don’t do an excellent job. Amy Ryan is striking as the intense Mari. Thomasin McKenzie gets plenty of room to shine in scenes which show off her vulnerability as the other daughter of Mari who is not just dealing with what happened to her sister but also the fact that she needs attention from the same mother who may have had demons all along. Veteran actor Gabriel Byrne plays the police commissioner helming the case and lends some sympathy to an otherwise incompetent character. But we gather little insight into how the police functions, and how it would affect their image with the public, and like the real case, it is truly frustrating. The treatment and the screenplay, however, still feels like a made-for-TV movie.
It is difficult to understand why Garbus, considering the stronghold she has on the subject matter, would choose to go the adaptation route when Lost Girls could easily make for a docu-series. The real Long Island serial killer is known to have killed more than a dozen people over two decades, and the film chooses to focus on the case of one woman, albeit which led to the discovery of other bodies. The realistic angle of how, in dehumanising sex workers, we unravel the incompetence of the system brings the story to an unsatisfactory but necessary conclusion, but the presentation pays a huge disservice to the real-life victims. Placing the apex of the story with Mari, her sympathy radar starts faltering soon after she takes up the investigation herself, as her lack of resources and duty towards other responsibilities is conveniently forgotten. Mari herself is not compelling enough to draw interest into a narrative feature film.
The trouble with Lost Girls isn’t the plot itself, for that is not just an important one but also angled smartly, but rather that the anger and frustration felt by Mari and even the other women in her support group for more such cases are never fully realised. It is handled sensitively but the screenplay is ridden with cliches and drones on without much depth towards the end. What Lost Girls severely lacks is the ability to create an effect after-effect. Prostitutes are ‘our girls’ too and the ‘otherness’ towards them should ideally aggravate and sadden us. Perhaps this would have been possible if it were a series. I find it hard to recommend Lost Girls completely unless you enjoy a surface perspective on the making of a criminal, in which case you can give it one watch.
Rating 2.5/5 Stars