Where most crime movies and shows would keep the ending of the case for the end of the movie, Netflix‘s Lost Girls announces on the screen that this is “an unsolved American mystery” at the very beginning. Before we are introduced the story, we know it does not have a happy ending. Yet, there needs to be some hope in the story to keep us watching. Even in a story with an unresolved ending, Lost Girls creates hope through passionate performances and characters who are determined to preserve the memory of girls the world didn’t want to matter.
The film, directed by Liz Garbus, is based on the real unsolved murders of dozens of East Coast women. In 2010, Shannan Gilbert went missing after she called 911 as she ran from a customer’s house she was visiting while working as an escort. The police took a month to connect the call with the missing person’s report her mother Mari filed around the same time. From there, Shannan’s disappearance was treated with little reverence by police in New York, and Mari began to search on her own. Her investigation into Shannan’s disappearance led her to the families of dozens of girls like Shannan. They went missing in similar circumstances, yet the police did very little to find them or connect the cases. Thanks to the police’s neglect, the woman came together to make sure their girls are not completely forgotten.
Mari Gilbert, played by Amy Ryan, is the kind of character that perfectly fuels a sad story like this one. She is resilient, fierce, unapologetic, and passionate despite no one taking her seriously. All her life, she has had to deal with more hardship than most of us could imagine. When her daughter goes missing, she never gives herself time to give up or feel bad for the imperfect relationship she had with her daughter. Mari’s determination never lets the audience give up either. She keeps the story moving and pushing towards the truth, or however close she can get to the truth.
Mari’s investigation does not just involve her daughter Shannan’s disappearance. She winds up connecting with the sisters, mothers, and daughters of other sex workers who have gone missing and haven’t been found. While it’s infuriating to hear the stories of women who have been systematically ignored and mistreated, there is something hopeful in seeing them acting together. They are not alone and powerless like the police, and society has made them believe they are. One of the most moving images in the movie is the women walking down the street to the house where Shannan was last seen, hand in hand and supporting one another. Despite their incredibly sad stories, there is hope for them thanks to their support for one another.
Shannan’s disappearance led to the discovery of other missing women’s bodies, which could not have happened without Mari’s determination after Shannan went missing. There may be questions that their families will never get answered, but they at least know that their daughters and sisters are no longer out there waiting for their families to find them. Hope that they’re still alive is gone, but there is hope that they can now move on. Mari was able to help others in her search for Shannan, which is a positive part of the story that does not often happen in murder cases like Shannan’s.
There are a lot of crime movies that show the determined father, the man who will do anything for his child (like in Prisoners, The Lovely Bones, and more). Yet, we don’t always see a mother looking for her daughter in the same way. They are often shown breaking down, being given drugs to sleep, and sitting in the background instead of on the frontlines of the investigation. Mari’s story is different. She is a single mother, one that knows she has not been the perfect mother but is nevertheless going to do everything she can to find her daughter. There is a toughness in her that we haven’t been shown with mothers in other movies about kidnappings, and that is inspiring, even if it is inspiring in a sad way. There’s a bit of hope in telling stories about crimes of this nature in showing a different set of characters than previously shown in movies of this genre.
Even in telling Mari, Shannan, and the other women’s stories offers more hope than we may realize. Most of these women have not been the subjects of true crime stories or crime dramas in the past. Their lifestyles in sex work or their economic status make them culpable for what happens to them in too many people’s minds. There have been several cases that have broken that mentality to a degree and tell the stories of women who have been ignored for so long. Cases in docs like Unseen and Murder on the Bayou deal with victims much like Shannan. Filmmakers giving the space and money to these women’s tragic stories help keep their memories alive. It also could offer the possibility of preventing something like this from happening again. As more people are aware of what sex workers deal with, they could be more apt to look for signs of danger and be able to help women who are often overlooked.
Lost Girls doesn’t claim to have a happy ending from the very beginning, and the ending is as about as devastating as they come. As we learn about Mari, Shannan, and the other women involved in their story, we can at least know that their stories are not done yet. Cases that continue to be told in films, podcasts, and documentaries are still in investigators’ minds. They may go cold for a while, but there is always the possibility they can be solved in the years to come. Until then, we can remember the victims’ stories and keep their memories alive the best we can.
Lost Girls is streaming on Netflix.