In 2010, the disappearance of 24 year old Shannan Gilbert, on Oak Island in New York state helped trigger the finding of four bodies. The bodies all belonged to young women who had been sex workers, all wrapped in burlap and buried in shallow graves. Further bodies, dating back to the 90s, were later found and the killer (or killers) has never been caught.
Lost Girls focuses on the beginning of this case, the aftermath of the disappearance of Shannan and the effect it had on her mother Mari (Amy Ryan) and younger sisters (Thomasin McKenzie and Oona Laurence) as well as on the families of the first four girls found.
The title Lost Girls has a dual meaning here, it of course refers to the victims, who were women whose killer appears to have assumed had nobody to miss or look for them, in many cases women who still don’t have names. It also refers to the bereaved. Aside from the Police, whose urgency is questionable, we see no men engaged in the hunt for these girls, instead what we find is a group of women left bereft by the loss of their daughters and sisters.
Unfortunately, the film struggles to find either of these lost groups. The victims are particularly short changed. For all the time that Mari spends trying to stop people referring to her daughter as a prostitute or a sex worker, the screenplay by Michael Werwie (who also wrote the Ted Bundy film Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile) tells us little else about them. We only see Shannan briefly. As an adult we watch her running from someone and she’s seen as a child in a video of a talent show that Mari rewatches over and over. The other girls are pure abstractions, never glimpsed and barely discussed even among their family. The one scene that does show the family talking about the victims gives Thomasin McKenzie one of her best moments, but is sadly brief and feels unfinished, as though the second half is on the cutting room floor.
Of the victim families, only Shannan’s is at all developed and, as good as Amy Ryan is within the demands of the part, the writing of Mari isn’t particularly detailed. It’s an affecting performance because of the character’s situation and because you know it’s real, but it lacks the layers of nuance that Sienna Miller brought to a similar role in American Woman. Thomasin McKenzie is similarly underserved, but also turns in good work throughout, the soft strength in her voice resonating here just as it did in Leave No Trace. The other families largely blend into the background; a chorus of figures touched but not broken by tragedy. Only Lola Kirke, as the brashest of the relatives, in the same line of work as her missing sister, breaks out of the group to leave much impression.
Documentarian Liz Garbus shoots her narrative debut effectively. The issue is the fact it’s narrative at all. To some degree, the ghost of Atom Egoyan’s terrible Devil’s Knot haunts this film. While Lost Girls is considerably better, and a lesser known story, the same pervasive feeling of watching history airbrushed dogs it. There are tragic practical issues with doing this as a documentary (filled in by the closing captions), but there is definitely the sense that with archive and new footage, that approach would allow a far deeper dive into the case and a more resonant look at who all these women are or were than we get here. It’s particularly frustrating because Garbus would be as well or better suited to making that film than this one.
With just 88 minutes to play with before the credits roll, it’s perhaps no surprise that Lost Girls feels as though it’s scratching at the surface of its many potential subjects. It tries to engage with the missing girls, the families, the cops, Mari’s fight to have the investigation taken more seriously, one particular suspect and more avenues besides. Garbus simply doesn’t have room for everything. Pull any of these threads out and there’s an interesting film to be made, the combination, sadly, becomes an unedifying tangle.