True crime has become an increasingly popular genre among films, TV and podcasts. People tune into shows about the minds and strategies of serial killers and murderers, which most listeners and viewers find psychologically fascinating. One of the biggest shortfalls of true crime, however, is that its focus on perpetrators and police investigations means that the stories surrounding victims are largely ignored or minimized. This is what makes “Lost Girls” so unique: The film tells the story of the victims’ families, and how they fought for answers surrounding the deaths of their daughters.
“Lost Girls” is the true story of the investigation surrounding the Long Island serial killer, who is linked to the deaths of 10-16 people, over a span of 20 years. Most of the victims were women linked to sex trades. The investigation began in 2011, after the disappearance of Shannan Gilbert led to the discovery of four bodies near a remote Long Island beach town. “Lost Girls” focuses on Mari Gilbert (Amy Ryan, “Birdman”), Shannan’s mother, whose crusade to find her daughter pushes the police to bring justice for the victims.
The film attempts to poke holes in one of the biggest issues surrounding the case: prejudice. Sexism and misogyny are present throughout. At the beginning, Mari is offhandedly told she’s receiving fewer shifts at one of her jobs than another woman because this woman smiles more. One of the lead investigators, Dean Bostick (Dean Winters, “30 Rock”), calls Mari “honey” while dismissing her concerns. After walking into the police station to yell at Commissioner Richard Dormer (Gabriel Byrne, “War of the Worlds”) for not updating her on the investigation, the policemen laugh at her anger as soon as she leaves. And all throughout, police and news alike refer to the victims as “prostitutes,” “sex workers,” “girls like this” and more. At one point, as Dormer is looking through records, Bostick remarks, “Who spends this much time looking for a missing hooker?”
This kind of language is one that “Lost Girls” hopes to fight, pointing to the problematic tendencies inherent in blaming the victims. By referring to them as girls in a “high-risk business,” people place the blame on the victims rather than the killer; “Lost Girls” tried to alter that narrative by portraying these girls not as prostitutes but as daughters and sisters. This is an important message in an age where “she was asking for it” is a sentiment that is still used in issues of rape.
The film introduces a community of women, the sisters and mothers of the women who were found dead, including Sherre Gilbert (Thomasin McKenzie, “Jojo Rabbit”) and Sarra Gilbert (Oona Laurence, “The Beguiled”), Mari’s other daughters. These women find their strength in each other, even as Mari goes on her crusade by herself. Much of Mari’s fight centers around not only finding her daughter but forcing the police to see the issue as one of importance. She’s relentless, driving hours to Long Island to confront the police for days in a row, conducting her own sort of investigations, going to suspects’ houses to interrogate them. She’s described as “feisty” and “a real problem” by the policemen she is pushing, but she keeps pushing without any signs of stopping. As Lorraine (Miriam Shor, “Younger”), the mother of one of the victims, says to Mari, “You’re an asshole. But you’re an asshole people listen to.”
The Long Island serial killer case remains unsolved, with no suspects having remained in custody for long. As a result, it’s a bit unsatisfying, no special reveal to tie up all of the loose ends. But this is the reality of many murders: There isn’t always a dramatic finale or a tidy wrap-up. Often, there is no real closure for the families of the victims. That is part of what makes this story so special. Whether Shannan Gilbert was ever found was not necessarily the most important thing. What was most important was that Mari Gilbert fought for her daughter and for the justice of the victim.