Liz Garbus’ Lost Girls is a dramatization of a real New York crime and the shockingly blundered investigation that it brought about. Garbus’ past filmography has been solely devoted to documentary filmmaking and this Amy Ryan starring film plays at times in a clinical fashion, a retelling of facts for a captive audience, it manages to say more about a fractured family, the guilt that crimes like these bring and the hope that simple resolutions bring than a documentary ever could and that is all thanks to Garbus’ understated eye and a quintet of powerful performances.
When Mari Gilbert’s (Amy Ryan) oldest daughter goes missing she is forced to make an apathetic police force take notice while protecting her two younger daughters Sherre (Thomasin McKenzie) and Sarra (Oona Laurence). When her actions uncover a deeper crime, linking back to dozens of missing women Mari is forced to look back at her own actions, the actions of a police force uninterested in their own failings and a culture of needless blame.
What is clear, right from the start is that Garbus isn’t just using Mari as an introduction to a true crime story, instead the real case study, the focal point of Lost Girls complicated tale is the Gilbert family. The way they change and interact with each other is layered to the extent where a character’s physical burn and how a family reacts to it is multi-directional and smartly unspoken. Feelings such as guilt and anger and the blame they bring flow seamlessly through the whole film but Garbus links it all to the hope of illusive answers.
The core trio of Ryan, McKenzie and Laurence each impress in different ways but equal plaudits should go to a gruelingly shame-filled performances by Gabriel Byrne and Lola Kirke as police commissioner Richard Dormer and prostitute Kim, two constantly shifting yet empathetic presence whose actions prove both enigmatic and understandable at the same time, all due to their increasingly sorrowful performances.
Garbus allows her performers to give life to the films minimalist world, one for which emptiness is just the way of things. This New York landscape is a vivid yet cold blue, a never ending winter that turns this locale into not only an inhospitable graveyard for missing women but also a place where escape seems almost impossible, where a sad end seems more inevitable than a happy future. Mari’s constant animosity and drive not only feel like a product of the world Garbus has built but a little spark of hope that this story might have some light at the end of the tunnel in one way or another.
What could easily feel hopeless and unrelentingly bleak is made unexpectedly loving thanks to Michael Werwie’s script which affords characters their moments of grief and pain without having them forget what they still have, the people in their lives worth staying strong for. Mari is a fascinating woman, not just because of her big brass balls but because of her connection to a family that from the outside seems forgettable to her.
The misconceptions and assumptions that come with this kind of story, a tale of seemingly forgettable people, the ones who slip through the cracks, are the ones that we are held to account for as the film forces you to take into account the way we treat those less fortunate than us. Garbus has transitioned into fictional filmmaking with a bold, starkly beautiful film that leaves you questioning your own worldview while never fully realising how she did it. A remarkable feat.