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'Lost Girls' Tells the Painful Story of the Search for the Serial Murderer of Young Women
March 13, 2020  | By David Hinckley

An unsolved serial murder case doesn't make for a wildly uplifting television show, but the Netflix production, Lost Girls, finds small victories in a sad game.

Lost Girls, which becomes available Friday, revisits the well-publicized real-life murders of close to a dozen female sex workers on Long Island. The first bodies were unearthed in 2010, though the killer may have been at work 15 years earlier.

Lost Girls focuses on the case of Shannan Gilbert, or, more specifically, her mother, Mari Gilbert (Amy Ryan).

Mari Gilbert, a single mother, struggling to raise three girls on her earnings as a waitress, had relinquished Shannan to foster custody when Shannan was 12.

Shannan had been diagnosed as bipolar and, as Mari puts it, "I took her to doctors I couldn't afford who gave her medications she wouldn't take."

So Mari thought sending Shannan into "the system" would give her a better shot, though it didn't. It also didn't make Mari feel any less guilty.

"Giving Shannan up" also causes some issues with Mari's middle daughter Sherre (Thomasin McKenzie), who was close to Shannan and now helps out with the youngest daughter Sarra (Oona Laurence).

In any case, it's now a dozen years later, and the Gilberts are soldiering along when they get a call from Shannan's boyfriend saying Shannan is missing.

She was last seen and heard in Oak Beach, a gated community on the tip of the Island. Shannan had called 911 screaming for help, and by the time the police arrived an hour later, she had disappeared.

Mari, pretty much alone, demands that the police investigate. Commissioner Doman (Gabriel Byrne) is sympathetic and marginally more interested than the other cops, but since no one tried to get any answers the night Shannan disappeared, there is little evidence to go on.

Mari persists, creating some distant echoes of Erin Brockovich, and in the process, she reminds us that sometimes it's not possible to be polite and still get the response you need.

Never warm and fuzzy on her best days, doubtless owing to the life she's had to fight her way through, Mari doesn't care whom she offends as she demands that the police do what they show absolutely no interest in doing, which is to find out what happened to throwaway women in the sex industry.

It's an unintended consequence of Mari's campaign that the bodies of other young women are found, even when Shannan remains missing. So Mari gets some allies among the relatives of the other victims, though at first, she doesn't treat them very well, either.

The most interesting subplot that unfolds during Mari's campaign revolves around Sherre with McKenzie giving the show's best performance as a young teenager trying desperately to find some sort of sane anchor in a world that seems to have spun wholly out of control.

Directed by Liz Garbus and based on the book by Robert Kolker, Lost Girls doesn't aim for cosmic. It's telling a narrow and mostly sad story.

Yet it's uplifting in the sense that it suggests one maniacally determined person who has basic decency on her side can force an indifferent system to pay attention.

It doesn't suggest Mari Gilbert changed the world or even got any great satisfaction. It does suggest she got an answer, which seems like the least she could expect.

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