Don’t be fooled by the way Lost Girls describes itself at the outset. “An unsolved American mystery.” If you think this is a film that isn’t going to reach a conclusion, then you’d be wrong – but that’s only half of its story. As it turns out, it has a number of layers, and that leaves you with the sense of a story in search of the right format.
Mari (Amy Ryan) juggles two jobs and looks after her two daughters, a teenager and a younger one on medication for behavioural problems. Her third daughter, Shannan, lives away from home and is due to come over for dinner one evening. But she never arrives. Brushed off by the police, Mari is determined to find out what happened and why the police are so disinclined to pursue the case – and, when they do, make a total hash of it. As she peels back the layers of her daughter’s life, she discovers a young woman she hardly knows, and uncovers a series of related murders. At the same time, she has to confront the truth about her own life, driving a wedge between herself and second daughter, Sherre (Thomasin McKenzie).
Hitherto a documentary maker, this is director Liz Garbus’s first venture into drama and, based on a true story, is something of a halfway house. She puts her documentary skills to good use, giving creating a fly on the wall perspective but also effectively including news footage as a backdrop that also allows us to see the effect of events on the family. But, given the twists, turns and complexities of the narrative, her decision to translate this into a drama instead of making a procedural doc is questionable. It’s reinforced by the discovery of the bodies of other young woman in the area where Shannan disappeared. There are more families involved in this than just Mari’s and they are all prostitutes. More deaths come to light, victims of the murderer known as The Long Island Serial Killer – the unsolved element of the story.
Given the subject matter, the film is inevitably sombre, with its tone and dingey colour palette: the small town is the epitome of ordinariness, the sky is almost permanently grey if the scenes aren’t at night and Mari’s life is tough. It’s familiar territory, another brassy blonde who won’t take no for an answer, and who is easy to judge and condemn. In Mari’s case, it’s even easier when it emerges that Shannan had a hard childhood because of bi-polar disorder. Her mother simply couldn’t cope and the girl was fostered for most of her younger years. It’s a guilt she simply cannot shrug off and drives her to find out what happened. Amy Ryan is excellent in the part, with a careworn face that’s seen too much of life: she’s been dealt some rough cards and they just keep on coming. Thomasin McKenzie has less to work with as the middle daughter, but still manages to show why she’s an acting force to be reckoned with, as a teenager torn between being protective over her younger sister, being angry with her mum and missing her big sister as well.
There are definite echoes of American Woman – its star, Sienna Miller, and Ryan have a similar look and their characters run on parallel lines, even though their respective stories and resolutions poles apart. But for anybody who loves a good crime doc, this seems like a waste. Even a dramatic mini-series would have allowed a more in-depth investigation, especially the actions of the police, which are essentially skated over. This is very much Ryan’s show and she carries it through, so that you’re prepared to make allowances for its inconsistencies and frustrations.
Crime, Thriller, Mystery | Cert: 15 | Netflix Original | 13 March 2020 | Dir. Liz Garbus | Amy Ryan, Thomasin McKenzie, Gabriel Byrne, Lola Kirke.