If there’s anything Netflix is good at, it’s true crime. The internet seems to be full of people binging true crime documentaries and raving about how great certain miniseries are, such as Making a Murderer or even Mindhunter. However, the streaming service’s movies have been somewhat worse than their TV show outings, and Lost Girls, the true story of one family who was impacted by the Staten Island serial killer, continues that trend. With a runtime of only an hour and 35 minutes, the story is never given enough time to come to life and impact the audience on an emotional level. It doesn’t help that the lead performance from Amy Ryan and the writing of the main characters are abysmal, making viewers side with the people the movie is criticising.
The subject matter of this movie is plenty interesting enough to justify this film, which is why it is all the more odd that this movie never quite had my full investment. We follow Mari Gilbert (Ryan), a struggling mother of three who begins to realize that her oldest daughter, a sex worker she rarely sees, has disappeared. After the police find three bodies of other sex workers in the woods nearby, things look grim for the whereabouts of young Shannan Gibert. However, Mari does not give up and demands that the police do a better job of finding her daughter, wherever she is. Once I got the gist of this plot, it was very easy to see exactly where the story would end up. Even though this film is a well-documented true story, it seemed like every other mundane true crime movie to get released into theaters or on Netflix in the past couple years.
As documented serial killers go, the Staten Island killer is one of the most recent and extreme examples, and many lessons can be learned from the police’s treatment of this case. While the filmmakers seem aware of this, they forgot to make Lost Girls stand out in any way, given its uninteresting plot and forgettable message. I appreciate the perspective the writers take by portraying the mother of one of those killed, but the way in which it is handled makes it feel like every other “mother who takes the case into her own hands” movie. The story deserved an adaptation that gave true weight to the situation and that made the lesson in the last third in the movie regarding the inhumane treatment of sex workers by the corrupt police feel more memorable.
Two main issues really kill any emotional weight Lost Girls could have had: the poor character development and the overdone performance from Ryan. In the opening minutes of the movie, we get the impression that the main family is having a tough time financially and that they are struggling to get by. That’s all viewers get of their lives before Shannan goes missing, so we are only given these characters after this stressful and devastating event occurs in their lives. Therefore, every time Mari makes some rash decisions involving the investigation of the case, I wasn’t onboard because they all seemed stubborn and irrational. Also, some major shortcomings are revealed about Mari in the second half of the film regarding parenting decisions made in the past, which ruin much of the credibility she has as a character and as a likable person. Ryan’s performance does not help the writing at all. It seems like in every single scene she is either complaining about someone to their face or yelling at someone about her own problems, and by the time the first third of the movie had passed, I just wanted her to be quiet. Unfortunately for me, the entire message of this movie revolves around not being quiet even when the establishment demands it, so my wishes weren’t granted until the credits rolled. I love the message this film is delivering, but the execution undercuts the poignance and importance of the lesson in almost every way.
The supporting performances are pretty solid, but each supporting character is not given enough screentime for them to be of note after the movie concludes. The director is also clearly talented, especially given her past documentary work (What Happened, Miss Simone?) but this film never becomes memorable enough to be more than just an average debut dramatic movie. Given the heavy and interesting subject matter, Lost Girls should have been an instant hit for Netflix, but in actuality this project is heading straight to the bottom of the “crime” suggestion list for each user. This movie is a brief hour and thirty minutes, which is far too short to justify the complicated situation they are covering. Audiences never get a full picture of the Staten Island killer case or the emotional impact it had on people’s lives, so Lost Girls never quite hits audiences like the filmmakers want it to.
I give Lost Girls a C-.