In December 2010, a police dog made a grisly discovery in a remote area of New York's Suffolk County – a badly decomposed body of a young woman. Tragically, this was the first of many such discoveries as this proved to be a dumping ground for a serial killer who preyed on young escorts. The remains of 10 victims were ultimately uncovered in the initial location and in a nearby bog. The killer was never apprehended and is still at large.
Liz Garbus' Lost Girls examines this case from a unique perspective as it focuses on the efforts of the mother of one of the victims to spur authorities to investigate the disappearance of her daughter. As all of the women who had gone missing were sex workers, discovering their fate was not a top priority for officials at the Suffolk County Sheriff's Department. As such, the killer was allowed to continue unabated, the film positing the criminal was, in fact, hiding in plain sight.
Mari Gilbert (Amy Ryan) is a woman riddled with faults, yet there's no denying she's fiercely protective of her daughters. Though estranged from her eldest daughter, Shannan, she maintains she's a good mother, acting in the best interests of all three of her girls. Sherre and Sarra (Thomasin McKenzie and Oona Laurence) are aware of their mother's faults and do their best to cope with their own issues, each of them dealing with a form of mental illness. However, once Shannan disappears, these three unite to find the lost girl, no matter what the cost.
As a procedural, the film moves quickly with Gilbert hounding authorities, Commissioner Richard Dormer (Gabriel Byrne) being her frequent target, rooting out clues, interviewing suspected parties and involving the media to further her cause. Though at times it seems like a one-note performance, there's no denying Ryan is fully invested in her character, bringing a fury to the role that's a tribute to Gilbert's tenacity.
She's so dedicated that you wish the script was worthy of her efforts. At times the story feels rushed, while key questions in the investigation go unanswered. A prime suspect emerges in the person of physician Peter Hackett (Reed Birney), a character we get far too little background on while his neighbor, Joe Scalise (Kevin Corrigan), has key information about the case that he conveniently provides to Gilbert. How he came to these conclusions is never explained and it proves bothersome. Also, there's a sense that this is only the tip of the iceberg where these events are concerned, as the other victims and their families are given short shrift throughout, rendered as background figures in Gilbert's story.
Despite its faults, there's a sense of purpose and nobility to the film that can't be denied. Much like Gilbert, Garbus' mission is to shine a light on these forgotten women. If nothing else, Lost Girls puts a human face to those who are often marginalized in society, the media and film. There are no "murdered prostitutes" from central casting here. In telling Shannan Gilbert's story, she reminds us that all who we mindlessly brush to the wayside are people whose lives matter and who deserve our sympathy and understanding.