For nearly 20 years, Long Island was home to a serial killer. This still-unidentified devil is believed to have murdered 10-16 sex workers from 1996 to 2013, approximately. These heinous acts went unnoticed by law enforcement for almost two decades, and it’s this dark crime that documentary filmmaker, Liz Garbus, explores in her first feature film, Lost Girls. Specifically, the film follows the disappearance of 24-year-old Shannan Gilbert and the investigation (or lack thereof) into her possible murder that leads to a trail of corpses – the unsolved cases of more than a dozen missing and murdered sex workers.
Shannan’s last moments open this tale of horrors as she is seen running for her life – her face remaining enshadowed – juxtaposed by her favorite song, “Beautiful Dreamer,” that accompanies the scene. She was supposed to go back home to visit Mari (Amy Ryan), her single mother working several jobs to support herself and Shannan’s two younger sisters, Sherre (Thomasin McKenzie) and Sarra (Oona Laurence). When Shannan doesn’t show up for her visit, however, it comes as no surprise to her family as they’re used to her not following through on promises. But once her boyfriend starts to call asking where she is, and when all their calls to Shannan go straight to voicemail, it becomes evident to them that something’s wrong. Mari calls the police, of course, but the police don’t show any sign of worry. At first, it’s strange that the cops don’t see any importance in the case of a missing white girl. It’s dismissed as quickly as Mari begins her own investigation. There’s no time to breathe as Mari gets in a little over her head, but soon, it all starts to make sense once Shannan is labeled as a “prostitute”.
“Girls like that,” the police comment, as they victim blame Shannan for her own disappearance, saying that there’s nothing to be worried about because she’s just on drugs and will turn up soon. The belief that sex workers are simply all drug addicts is a misconception that Lost Girls achieves in dismissing, but the portrayal of police incompetence is truly horrific. From the officer on the case calling the missing girl by the wrong name to saying, “Who spends this much time looking for a missing hooker,” it’s clear that the police believe sex workers are insignificant nobodies that aren’t worth the help of police resources – until the skeletal remains of other sex workers begin to turn up that is. Sex workers have been fighting for the decriminalizing of their work for decades. It’s because it’s criminalized that they are targets for police abuse. Experiencing violence is a frequent occurrence that sex workers shouldn’t be facing and wouldn’t be if they had any rights as workers. Tamika Spellman, a sex worker in Washington, DC, spoke last year about the abusive behavior shown towards her by police, which echoes that depicted in Garbus’s film: “I’ve had them call me names, tell me that I was stupid, that whatever happened to me out there, I deserved it for being out there.”
There are many misconceptions about why sex workers get into the industry in the first place. A free exhibit in New York called Sex Workers’ Pop-Up is featuring artwork and performances by and about sex workers from around the world. Why women choose to go into this business is something the exhibit sums up well: “The vast majority of sex workers choose to do sex work because it is the best option they have. Many sex workers – although not all – struggle with poverty and marginalization, leading to limited job options for other work. Some find that sex work offers better pay and more flexible working conditions than other jobs. And some pursue sex work to explore and express their sexuality.” While the film doesn’t explicitly state why Shannan and the other victims chose that kind of work, the film speaks of their profession with sensitivity and reminds the audience that these girls are people too. As Mari points out, it’s wrong to only label these women as “prostitutes,” “hookers,” and “escorts,” because they are first and foremost “sisters,” “friends,” “mothers,” and “daughters”.
As the film progresses, secrets of both mother and daughter are revealed, with one being incredibly telling of how the state of the health care system in America doesn’t allow for survival, as single mothers must work double and graveyard shifts just to afford health care for their families. This struggle for survival has followed Mari all her life and Amy Ryan completely embodies this. It’s a raw and vulnerable performance, but one where she wears a feisty external layer of a woman ready to raise hell. Thomasin McKenzie as Sherre, unfortunately, isn’t given the same kind of material to work with that allows her to show off her acting chops as we’ve seen in the past. The actor that’s the most interesting to watch is Oona Laurence. Sarra, in real life, suffered from mental illness which resulted in her murdering her mother. Because of this fact, it’s interesting to see her as a young child and watch her have to go through all this trauma and seeing the effects that could possibly lead to the heartbreaking outcome in her future. The exhibited early signs of lifelong trauma are due to an excellent performance by Laurence.
One of the many aspects of the film I admire is its cinematography from Igor Martinovic. He has a unique eye for angles and focus shifts, giving it a look that compliments Garbus’s experience with documentary filmmaking. The use of real news footage of the time is a great addition too. That said, I do feel there’s a kind of disconnect watching a true crime story told in this way. As the viewer, you feel something is standing in your way from feeling as sucked in as you do with documentaries on the subject of criminal misdeeds. Screenwriter, Michael Werwie, also wrote Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, and was met with criticism for providing little depth to the women in Ted Bundy’s life. The same can be said here to a certain degree. The runtime only allows for the story of one victim, where a true-crime series could find room to focus on and give a voice to each victim in this narrative.
Nevertheless, Lost Girls turns out to be an incredibly touching and powerful film, as a sisterhood is formed over one lost. One of the best scenes in the film is when all the family members of the victims walk into the gated community of Oak Beach where Shannan was last seen and nearby where the bodies of the other women were found. The ignorance of its inhabitants makes them complicit as they shut their blinds upon seeing these women approach. It’s a reminder to us all to end our ignorance of sex work and to realize that their lives are just as valuable as our own.
Movie Score: 3.5/5