By Leah Greenblatt
March 12, 2020 at 12:30 PM EDT
Lost Girls
Credit: Jessica Kourkounis/Netflix

How do you find a girl who’s already gone? In many of the ways that matter most — at least to the general public — the young women in Liz Garbus’ fact-based drama went missing a long time ago: disappeared into sex work and addiction, swallowed by indifferent poverty.

To the people who love them, though, they’re still daughters and sisters, mothers and friends. And Garbus, a much-awarded documentarian (What Happened, Miss Simone?, Ghosts of Abu Graib) works hard to make them seen in her narrative-feature debut.

She mostly does succeed, even if Girls never quite rises above its TV-movie feel — or manages to give viewers a fuller portrait of the victims, nearly all of them prostitutes, whose deaths have been attributed to a still-unknown serial killer who left their bodies along Long Island’s South Shore throughout the mid-2000s.

It helps immensely that the film has an actress like Amy Ryan (Birdman, Beautiful Boy) to play Mari Gilbert, whose years-long battle to get anyone at all — the press, the police, the people of New York — to care about her daughter Shannan forms the emotional core of the story.

Her hair bleached into a sort of frazzled Tonya Harding shag, Ryan's Mari is a raw knot of fury and hurt, relentlessly pushing the local commissioner (a constrained Gabriel Byrne) to investigate a case that somehow went cold before it even started, and only reluctantly joining a sort of ragtag support group at the behest of her two youngest daughters (Thomasin McKenzie and Oona Laurence).

Clues, when they start looking, seem to be everywhere: in phone records, chatty witnesses, even a 23-minute phone call to 911 that marks what sounds like Shannan’s final moments. Which makes it that much more maddening that hardly anyone can be bothered to pursue them.

Garbus, fairly, doesn’t put too fine a point on any of this, or on Mari's own shortcomings as a parent. Though it’s hard not to wish that the script (by Michael Werwie, who also penned last year’s Ted Bundy biopic Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile) dug a little deeper than it does, and that the film's visual imagination did too.

Instead, the story mostly unfolds as a sort of elevated Law & Order episode, beat by beat — albeit one that aims not so much to crack the case as simply to bring some kind of light, at least in death, to girls who deserved much more while they lived. B

Lost Girls premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and arrives Friday on Netflix.

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