Review of Lost Girls: a slow moving, well meaning Netflix true crime series

For documentarian Liz Garbus, the tale of workers killed by an as-yet-unsolved serial killer makes for an ordinary narrative debut.

After receiving muted praise after its premiere at this year’s Sundance film festival, the sincere drama based on fact, Lost Girls, has left for its proper home on Netflix in less than two months. True crime is one of the platform’s most consistently popular subgenres, despite its increasing attempts to prove it can—or at least try to—do everything. This is demonstrated by shows like Making a Murderer and the recent hit The Trials of Gabriel Fernandez, which appeal to the public’s insatiable, morally dubious lust for tragedy, violence, and, occasionally, justice.

Lost Girls is a carefully constructed, painfully slow film based on an unsolved string of deaths by the so-called Long Island Serial Killer, which was described in a best-selling book by writer Robert Kolker. The film’s output in this area can frequently feel exploitative. Police suspect that during a 20-year period, he killed between 10 and 16 people, but the film focuses on a single young woman who went missing and how her search turned up four more remains.

Review of Lost Girls: a slow-moving, well-meaning Netflix true crime series
Review of Lost Girls: a slow-moving, well-meaning Netflix true crime series

It’s a story of righteous fury, inept police work, and men in positions of power who refuse to hear or trust the voices of women. Amy Ryan’s character, Mari Gilbert, is a low-income woman who works two jobs to attempt to support her two daughters. Her oldest child, Shannan, is the third; he lives somewhere else, and Mari grudgingly begs her occasionally for financial support. Unspoken but recognised by Mari, the source of Shannan’s money is a family mystery that is revealed when Shannan disappears.

Shannan was a worker who obtained her clients through Craigslist (the killer was also referred to as the Craigslist Killer). She was promptly disregarded by police, who made the same generalised and moralistic judgements about her as the media did at the time. Mari, not willing to let her daughter’s abduction fade into history, teams up with the families of the women whose remains have been discovered and begins to piece the puzzle together—with or without assistance from the authorities.

Documentarian Liz Garbus, whose topics have included everything from Nina Simone to the Holocaust, tackles her first narrative feature, Lost Girls, in which she finds it difficult to strike the correct balance between muted naturalism and button-pushing Hollywood formula. When some actors play it straight, others play up to clichés; for example, Lola Kirke plays a cartoonish prostitute, while Dean Winters of 30 Rock plays a clueless police officer.

Similar to this, Ryan lacks inhibition; he can be convincingly raw at times and uncomfortable grandstanding at others. Although it’s nice to see her get so much screen time, her performance never fully hits home, and at best, our emotional connection to the growing destruction is shaky.

Screenwriter Michael Werwie and director Garbus infuse the movie with a much-needed rage, exposing the all too common practice of victim shaming and unfairly placing the responsibility on women. In addition, there is a subtext of respect for individuals in the industry who are much too frequently stigmatised both on and off screen.

The movie is always well-intentioned, but good intentions only go so far. Even with its heartfelt and delicate moments, the movie never quite captures the same level of attention or impact as the central narrative. A textual coda that brings a poorly developed subplot—one of several strands and character interactions that don’t have enough time or depth—to the fore unveils one of the most unexpected revelations. With only 95 minutes, Lost Girls is incredibly short, and it begs the question of what may have been discovered in a Garbus docuseries in its stead.
Netflix launched Lost Girls on March 13.


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