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Lost Girls (2020) Review

Lost Girls (2020) is a sloppy drama, which drags for the most part and never finds its focus. The topic it touches, however, is relevant and so deserved a more thoughtful approach.

One important thing about reviewing true crime stories is to draw a line between film as a medium and the actual events. When it comes to Lost Girls (2020), an after-Sundance acquisition of Netflix, the real drama of Mari Gilbert shed light on how ruthless third-parties can be – especially those who should be helping out. However, the film itself is sadly a different story.

What is Lost Girls (2020) about?

Mari Gilbert, played by Amy Ryan, learned one day about the disappearance of her daughter, Shannan. The case is led by detective Richard Dormer (Gabriel Byrne), for whom Gilbert’s case will be the last in his career. As Dormer fails to crack the case, Mari started the search on her own.

The true story of this investigation serves as an example of a large failure of the justice system in the U.S. One of the police officers asks Dormer “who would spend that much time looking into a case of a missing hooker?“. In that question lies the appalling attitude towards Shannan’s case. When the police discovered several bodies of sex workers in the marshlands in Long Island – the “coincidental” whereabouts of Shannan’s disappearance too – Gilbert’s been already doomed.

In other words, the press, along with the investigating officers, did their math. Given the troublesome past of Shannan, she was easily categorized as a prostitute, and that didn’t stick well with the masses.

Because again, who would care about another dead sex worker?

lost girls movie stills and poster

Such blatant unfairness and double standards of whose life matters more isa topic to make one’s blood boiling. Yet Lost Girls (2020) takes on a muddled route to evoke emotions, a route closer to a Sunday television impact rather than a riveting drama film.

Lost Girls (2020) should have been a documentary

Director Liz Garbus spends much time on exploring how Shannan’s disappearance affects her mother, as well as her other daughters. The drama is fundamentally built on the negligence of the justice system, and how this personal tragedy is relegated to scrap heap. On the other side of the fence, Garbus reveals the face of this injustice, impersonated by a burn-out detective Dormer.

So in theory, this structure allows for a wide take on the subject.

But the reason for this absolutely soulless delivery stems from Liz Garbus’ background as a director. Garbus, who is a natural-born documentarian with two Oscar nominations scored, hopes that the story itself will talk volumes. However, the reality is different. In fact, Garbus has no grasp over feature-film narrative. She even tailors-in real footage in Lost Girls (2020), in moments when the film desperately screams for more dramatic substance.

Bored cops and floundering mothers

Amy Ryan in lost girls 2020 Netflix drama

This lack of feature-film calling is seen first-hand in the performances too.

Gabriel Byrne pulls off the washed-off guy type quite well, as he proved in Hereditary (2018). However, as Richard Dormer, Byrne maunders through scenes, a weighing ballast in Lost Girls (2020). Thomasin Mackenzie, whose brilliant role in Jojo Rabbit (2019) became the film’s highlight, acts lost too. And while Amy Ryan delivers a stand-out, fine performance, very close to Francis McDormand’s role in Three Billboards in Ebbing, Missouri (2017), she too has a paper-thin depth to chew into. Ryan fights, but Michael Werwie’s schematic script deprives the actress of even one truly impactful moment in the film.

At the same time, Liz Garbus finds it difficult to move smoothly between scenes. They’re often disconnected from each other – the result of evidently fallible editing – and crush the dramatic continuity of the movie. The rushed cuts introduce chaos in Garbus’ narrative, both thematically and tonally. I also longed for longer shots, and a more steady direction – like in Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners (2013) that tackled a close subject.

Liz Garbus is definitely to blame in Lost Girls (2020), but the true culprit is Michael Werwie’s script

thomasin Mackenzie and Amy Ryan in lost girls

Werwie constantly uses shortcuts, and sloppily introduces Amy Ryan’s character as a quasi-feminist heroine. Ryan does her best to deliver those lines with credibility, yet there’s an undeniable artificiality to this character development. Werwie twists the character in order to put certain ideas forward – like feminist propaganda. At the end of the day, the focus is diluted, and so are the emotions that this story should evoke.

All things considered, I’m far from criticizing Lost Girls (2020) for what it aimed to stand for. Like The Act (2020-), or even Tiger King (2020), this is one of many tragic stories which delve into the shadier part of America’s justice system and society. But the movie achieves a point wherein the struggle of Mari Gilbert is no longer viable for the audience, and turns into a dreary, uninventive piece of television drama. Frankly, with Garbus directing, Lost Girls (2020) had a chance at succeeding if turned into a documentary. As a quasi-feature, it does not.

Lost Girls (2020) – Culturally Loved or Hated?

Despite its serious topic, and a number of important issues raised, it’s a film largely unfinished, and made with little depth or soul.

Lost Girls (2020)

Hate Grade: 6/10

Director: Liz Garbus

Writer: Michael Werwie

Starring: Amy Ryan, Gabriel Byrne, Thomasin Mackenzie

Music: Anne Nikitin

Cinematography: Igor Martinovic

Available At: Netflix

If you liked Lost Girls (2020), you might also like:

  • When They See Us (2019) – a miniseries by Netflix, this drama delivers a heavy punch in its portrayal of a large miscarriage of justice with racial tones,
  • Prisoners (2013) – a phenomenal thriller by Denis Villeneuve about two families whose daughters are kidnapped,
  • The Act (2020-) – a series about the real case of a woman who purposefully handicapped her daughter in order to financially profit,
  • Constant Gardener (2005) – its main character is also a relentless truth seeker, who tries to understand what happened to his wife gone missing in Africa,
  • The Farm: Angola, USA (1998) – an Oscar-nominated film by Liz Garbus, about a terrifying penitentiary in Louisiana.

Read here about our Top Netflix Recommendations for 2020.

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