Lost Girls (dir. Liz Garbus, 2020) – When her daughter goes missing, Mari Gilbert launches her own investigation that in turn brings attention to a string of unsolved murders.
In 2010, 24-year-old Shannan Gilbert vanished after meeting a client off Craigslist. She was last seen knocking on doors along Oak Beach for help, as though in fear for her life. Her body was later found in a marsh. At least 10 other bodies were discovered in the vicinity, four of whom were also identified as sex workers.
Lost Girls brings her harrowing story to screen, but it is far from a play-by-play procedural. Without exploiting the tragedy, Liz Garbus presents a more complex study on the unresolved murders, shining a light on the avoidable failures of a callous society.
The media chose to home in on the victims being sex workers, implying that the girls might had done something to deserve their fates. Police repeatedly dismissed Shannan’s death as an accident, despite her frantic 911 call before she went missing. It is as though some victims are less than others.
This apathy left missed windows of opportunities, and the world would have let these cases fade, if not for the mothers of the lost girls. These women led a relentless campaign for a thorough investigation into their daughters’ deaths, forcing the police to act by way of the public’s eye.
Mari Gilbert was at the forefront of the activism. On screen, she is portrayed as a compellingly grounded and sometimes flawed character. The single mother had struggled to cope with two jobs, often asking her eldest child for money before her disappearance. During the investigation, she judges the other families for not fighting for the cause as hard as she does. She also makes no bones about the police’s incompetence.
Amy Ryan as Mari puts all these raw emotions on display, especially in her strained relationships with her other daughters. Sherre (Thomasin McKenzie) resents her mother for sending Shannan to a foster home, not knowing or caring for her reasons. Sarra (Oona Laurence) suffers from schizophrenia, gradually breaking down after her sister’s body is found.
This dark tragedy gradually builds to a boiling point. Their downward spiral exposes the dangers of a society that remains indifferent towards the “wayward” or the underclass. As her first drama feature after years of documentary filmmaking, the film shows Liz Garbus’ sensitivity to the truth. Her honesty and insight make for powerful storytelling, unafraid to confront difficult subjects.
For anyone eager for answers, there are none. The investigation still trudges on today, calling for the release of the 911 tape just earlier this month, perhaps 10 years too late. Grim as it is, Lost Girls is essential viewing for giving a necessary voice to the victims’ families. It invites us to feel the same rage, helplessness, and grief they had felt – for the closure that may never been within reach.
Lost Girls gives a much needed voice to the victims through their families, never once falling into the easy way of sensationalism.