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'Lost Girls' Review: Netflix's tragic new film revisits Long Island murders, chronicles plight of sex workers

Directed by two-time Academy Award nominee Liz Garbus, the movie narrates the ugly, painful reality of prejudice against sex workers
UPDATED MAR 20, 2020
'Lost Girls' (Netflix)
'Lost Girls' (Netflix)

Spoilers for Netflix's 'Lost Girls'

"What was she doing in a gated community, 100 miles away from home in the middle of the night?" is one of the first questions the police ask about a missing Shannan Gilbert. The 24-year-old sex worker had been missing for 48 hours, but the police tell her mother that when "girls like this" go missing, it is a high-risk event since she might have left on her own and might return.

But Shannan Gilbert never returns home.

Netflix's 'Lost Girls' is looking for Shannan Gilbert; perhaps more sincerely than the police. Inspired by Robert Kolker's best-selling non-fiction book of the same name, the Netflix movie tells the story of Shannan's disappearance. But more than that, it tells the story of her mother Mari Gilbert's (Amy Ryan) desperate search for her daughter, and justice for young prostitutes killed in Long Island.

Mari's struggle to find her daughter against police bias is portrayed with sincerity in a stirring performance by the Academy Award-nominated actress. At first, the police refuse to take her seriously. For one, when on the night of her disappearance Shannan called 911, the police took an hour to get to her help. When questioned about this unbelievably lax attitude, the police had no questions.

Still from 'Lost Girls' (Image: Netflix)

Every time Shannan or the dead girls are mentioned, they are referred to as prostitutes, sex workers, and hookers. "Who is killing sex workers in Long Island? Where is Shannan Gilbert?" headlines are plastered all over media reports. In fact, the cops weren't even looking for the missing girls -- they found the bodies accidentally. Mari's independent discoveries force law enforcement and the media to uncover more than a dozen unsolved murders of sex workers.

Determined to find her daughter, Mari leaves no stone unturned. She retraces Shannan's last steps and reaches an insular gated community near the isolated outer banks of Long Island. The police, if anything, only becomes a hindrance. She is even told not to talk to the media by the Suffolk County Police Commissioner Richard Dormer (Gabriel Byrne). Dormer, an incompetent officer who had only recently survived dismissal over staffing level issues, doesn't show initiative. Nor does he chastise the nonchalance of the force that mocks Mari. Even when following up on Mari's leads, Dormer is flaccid in his pursuit.

Amy Ryan as Mari Gilbert on 'Lost Girls' (Netflix)

Directed by two-time Academy Award nominee Liz Garbus, the movie narrates the ugly, painful reality of prejudice against women, more specifically sex workers. 'Lost Girls' is an absolutely heartbreaking story, which chronicles the horrors sex workers have to go through. Not only does the police not take Mari's complaints -- or every complaint before Mari -- they also mock her desperation. Where Mari's frustration with their preconceptions should have been taken seriously, they fail to act upon it altogether.

Starring Thomasin McKenzie as Sherre Gilbert, Gabriel Byrne as police commission Dormer, and Lola Kirke as Kim, 'Lost Girls' is a brutally honest story. Garbus tells the story in pockets, making revelations throughout the story. You find yourself hoping against hope for Shannan's survival. The conclusion may be surreal yet hard-hitting and sorrowful. If you find yourself feeling angry and/ or sad, 'Lost Girls' has succeeded in its cause.

'Lost Girls' is currently streaming on Netflix.