One of the most famous unsolved American mysteries in recent years, the identity of the Long Island Serial Killer has long baffled authorities. Believed to have murdered somewhere in the neighborhood of a dozen young women from 1996 to the early 2000s, the killer primarily targeted young prostitutes, often leaving their bodies along the roadside on the Island’s south shore. It’s no surprise, then, that the Netflix original film Lost Girls doesn’t provide any answers while serving as a horrific reminder that the case has never been closed.
At the center of Lost Girls is the Gilbert family. Mom Mari (Amy Ryan) is working two jobs while trying to raise her daughters, though Sherre (Thomasin McKenzie) has essentially taken over parental duties for younger Sarra (Oona Laurence), who is coping with an unidentified mental illness. The eldest Gilbert sister, 24-year-old Shannan, no longer lives at home; she was dumped into foster care at age 12 before bouncing around and eventually resorting to selling herself on Craigslist. She was meeting a client on the night of May 1, 2010, when she ran screaming from the house and into a thick marshy area near Oak Beach. Her body was finally discovered more than a year later.
It’s odd that director Liz Garbus, who has made a career helming numerous award-winning documentaries—including Ghosts of Abu Ghraib and What Happened, Miss Simone? (along with the excellent Love, Marilyn)—went the route of a dramatic re-telling for Lost Girls—it seems like a documentary treatment would have worked much better. The end result is harrowing, to be sure, but the bountiful opportunities for editorialism means there’s a clear agenda in play throughout the film, which often gets distracting—as if the filmmakers need to preach to us instead of just offering the facts of not only Shannan’s case but the many others connected through the fibers of the story.
The script by Michael Werwie (Netflix’s Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile) gives Ryan a lot of meat to stick her teeth into, and she is more than up for the job, turning in a multi-layered, memorable performance. Essentially playing a variation on her Gone Baby Gone grieving mother, she is fully invested in both the character and the story, which helps breathe life into a mournfully tragic woman. The more Mari digs for answers about her daughter’s disappearance, the more she discovers her own shortcomings, imbuing Lost Girls with a powerful depth and resonance.
Without Ryan’s performance, the film might have ultimately felt as frustrating as its real-life story. And for many, that will indeed be the case; there’s certainly no pretty little bow to wrap everything up. It will also, no doubt, send folks scrambling into a Wikipedia wormhole in a desperate search for answers about the now-decades-old cold case. But in and of itself, Lost Girls is a haunting look at one family’s search for answers even as it leaves us with more questions.