Lost Girls review: New on Netflix in true crime, Amy Ryan film looks at 'imperfect' victims, callous policing
Lost Girls, Netflix's latest true crime offering, revisits the 2010 disappearance of 24-year-old Shannan Gilbert in the state of New York, and her mother's crusade to get the police to investigate the case.
In Lost Girls, its latest true crime offering, Netflix turns to the unsolved case of the Long Island serial killer, who was allegedly responsible for the murders of between 10-16 women over a period of 20 years, and hasn't been apprehended by the police so far.
Specifically, it looks at the case of (one of his possible victims) Shannan Gilbert, a 24-year-old woman who went missing in 2010, and her mother's attempts to get the police to treat her daughter's disappearance with the consideration that it deserved.
Since the Gilbert case has already received a fair amount of attention, with Shannan's mother Mari, and sister Sherre advocating for justice on her behalf, Netflix shuns the documentary film or series route, and opts for a feature film treatment instead, based on Robert Kolker's book of the same name (Lost Girls, published in 2013).
Incidentally, it was through Kolker's 2011 story for New York Magazine that I came across the Gilbert case. The article was a profile of Mari Gilbert and the mothers or sisters of four other women whose deaths were connected to Shannan's disappearance. It was when looking for some trace of Shannan at Oak Beach — the last place she was seen alive — that the police found the remains of these four other women. Maureen Brainard-Barnes, Melissa Barthelemy, Megan Waterman and Amber Lynn Costello had all disappeared between 2007-2010; their bodies were found buried in burlap sacks on the same stretch of land. Maureen, Melissa, Megan and Amber had profiles similar to Shannan's: all in their early 20s, engaged in sex work usually over Craigslist (which meant they could circumvent a pimp who would otherwise take away a major cut of their earnings), possibly using drugs.
While Kolker's story focused on them all, Lost Girls looks at the events of 2010-12 through the perspective of Mari Gilbert. Shannan promises to visit her for dinner in their last phone call, and then doesn't show up. At first, Mari is hurt but not overly apprehensive about her daughter's safety (Shannan has been living by herself for several years now). But after she receives a mysterious call from a doctor who thinks Shannan might be in trouble, Mari is spurred into looking for her oldest daughter.
Through questioning Sannan's boyfriend and a man she employed as a driver to take her to and from jobs, and obtaining her cellphone records, Mari recreates her daughter's last steps. Apparently she was with a client at Oak Beach, and suffered some sort of hysterical breakdown that saw her flee his home, refuse her driver's help, and then stagger away into thin air.
While the circumstances surrounding her daughter's last traceable hours are eerie, Mari comes up against something far more troubling: the police's seeming reluctance to investigate Shannan's disappearance. Their approach can be construed either as incompetent and slipshod, or callous and indifferent — neither of which shows the authorities' actions in a particularly good light. Again and again, Mari must bully them into doing their jobs; by pointing out how much time it took them to answer her daughter's last call, to 911. By pointing out that there was possibly security camera footage of Shannan, just before she vanished, that the police never tried to obtain. By pointing out individuals who the police must consider persons of interest in the case. By pointing out that they haven't searched a tract of land that might hold a clue to Shannan's whereabouts. By sheer dint of will, not allowing them to give up, Mari prevents the police from dismissing her daughter's fate.
With its focus on Mari's crusade, Lost Girls underscores yet again that not all victims are created equal; some are considered more "disposable" than others. Just because the murdered women were in sex work, or because Mari gave up custody of her daughter as a young single mother (Shannan had bipolar disorder and required medication and care that Mari felt unable to provide), judgement is visited on them — they are less worthy, not important enough, their deaths of no particular note.
In this aspect, Lost Girls is reminiscent of Unbelievable, also a story of police bungling — another harrowing true story, where prejudices about how a female victim should behave lead to a young woman being railroaded by rather boneheaded cops into retracting her complaint about being raped, until a parallel investigation in another country reveals that she was telling the truth after all, and that the same rapist went on to assault several other women.
Lost Girls has three notable performances in the persons of Amy Ryan (Mari Gilbert), Thomasin Mckenzie (Sherre Gilbert) and Gabriel Byrne (as Suffolk police commissioner Richard Dormer). Among these veterans, Mackenzie (last seen in Jojo Rabbit) stands out: vulnerable yet strong. Lola Kirke is impactful in a short role (she plays the role of Amber Lynn Costello's sister, Kimberly). Directed by Liz Garbus, the film of itself is serviceable, with the occasional glimpse of beauty in the bleak Long Island or Suffolk County landscape, and an inherent poignance invested due to the story's real life ending.
A Facebook page for her older sister Shannan, updated sporadically by Sherre Gilbert, continues to see a flood of messages from amateur sleuths and those interested in the case. They bring up various questions the police haven't satisfactorily answered, or leads and individuals they never thoroughly investigated. Sherre tries to reply to some of them, but more often than not, the commenters carry on the conversation all on their own. One of the recent posts on the page is about the other women — Maureen, Melissa, Megan and Amber — with a request not to forget about them.
Perhaps Lost Girls too could have benefited from a focus on all the women, by taking on a form somewhat similar to Kolker's 2011 article. The lasting takeaway from the film, apart from the police's absolute mishandling of the Shannan Gilbert case, is that of the solidarity amid the mothers and sisters of the young women. They hold candles for their lost girls, pray for them, fight for them when no one else does, and support each other — quietly — through grief.
Lost Girls is currently streaming on Netflix. Watch the trailer here —
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