January 10, 2021
by Carla Hay
Directed by Liz Garbus
Culture Representation: Taking place mostly in New York state and partially in New Jersey, the dramatic film “Lost Girls” features a predominantly white cast (with a few African Americans, Latinos and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class in depicting the real-life people involved in the Long Island Serial Killer (LISK) murder mystery.
Culture Clash: Mari Gilbert, whose murdered daughter Shannan is believed to be a LISK victim, fights for justice with her daughters and family members of other LISK murder victims, who believe that law enforcement isn’t properly investigating these crimes.
Culture Audience: “Lost Girls” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in dramatic portrayals of true crime stories and don’t mind if some scenes in the movie are unrealistic.
The ongoing investigations into the unsolved murders of at least 16 people who are believed to have been victims of the Long Island Serial Killer (also known as LISK, the Gilgo Beach Killer or the Craigslist Ripper) are too complex to condense into a scripted movie. Almost all of the murder victims were women who worked as prostitutes, they advertised themselves on Craigslist, and their bodies were found on New York state’s Long Island from the 1990s to the 2010s. Instead of telling all of these murder victims’ stories, the Netflix dramatic feature film “Lost Girls” focuses on the perspective of one real-life mother whose eldest daughter is believed to be one of the LISK murder victims. As of this writing, no suspects have been arrested in the murders.
Directed by Liz Garbus, “Lost Girls” is a well-acted but ultimately a by-the-numbers and often-melodramatic depiction of Mari Gilbert’s struggle to get justice for her murdered 23-year-old daughter Shannan Gilbert, who disappeared on May 1, 2010, in Oak Beach, New York, shortly after Shannan visited a prostitution client. Shannan’s body was found on December 13, 2011, about half of a mile from where she was last seen in public. Investigators have concluded that she died of strangulation sometime in the after-midnight hours when she disappeared.
Michael Werwie wrote the “Lost Girls” screenplay as an adaptation of Robert Kolker’s 2013 non-fiction book of the same title. It’s fairly obvious that much of the movie was fabricated for dramatic purposes, particularly in depicting the police investigation and by showing Mari suddenly turning into a supersleuth. People who like the type of “crusading mother” clichés that are often seen in Lifetime movies won’t have as much of a problem with the unrealistic aspects of the “Lost Girls” movie as much as people who might be looking for a grittier and more authentic depiction of what really happens in murder investigations. (And there’s a Lifetime movie about Mari Gilbert called “The Long Island Serial Killer: A Mother’s Hunt for Justice,” starring Kim Delaney as Mari Gilbert. The movie is set to premiere on Lifetime on February 20, 2021.)
Garbus gives “Lost Girls” solid direction, and the talented cast led by Amy Ryan (who portrays Mari Gilbert) elevates the movie slightly above the type of forgettable crime thrillers that are usually made for basic cable networks. Because “Lost Girls” is based on a true crime story that got a lot of publicity, many people watching this movie already know how it’s going to end. By making Mari the central character of the movie, “Lost Girls” sticks to the same “angry mother looking for justice” formula that’s been seen in many other movies just like it.
However, the real Mari Gilbert was much more controversial in real life than this movie makes her out to be. Airing all of her dirty laundry in this movie wouldn’t make her look as sympathetic as the filmmakers want her to look. For example, there were long-standing allegations that she brought up her daughters in an abusive home, where Mari’s boyfriend at the time was accused of sexually abusing her two middle daughters Sherre and Sarra.
The “Lost Girls” movie leaves out a lot of information about the real-life Mari Gilbert and her family. Mari was a single mother with four daughters, but only three of her daughters are mentioned in the movie: eldest daughter Shannan, second-eldest daughter Sherre and third-eldest daughter Sarra. Mari’s youngest daughter Stevie Smith is not seen nor mentioned in the movie. In real life, Sarra was a teen mother to a son named Hayden at the time of Shannan’s disappearance, but the movie makes it look like Sarra was never a mother.
Mari’s daughters Sherre and Sarra were teenagers at the time that Shannan disappeared, so they weren’t as involved as Mari was in hounding the police to properly investigate Shannan’s disappearance. Sherre (played by Thomasin McKenzie) is portrayed as stoic and introverted during this family ordeal. Sarra (played by Oona Laurence) is portrayed as a troubled and rebellious child who’s been suspended from school for lighting paper towels on fire in the school’s bathroom. Sarra is also on various medications for her mental health.
At the time of Shannan’s disappearance, the movie shows that Mari was living in Ellenville, New York, and holding down two jobs—a forklift operator and a waitress—making her too busy to have a love life. The father(s) of her children are not seen in the movie, and it’s implied that these biological fathers have no contact with Mari and her children. “Lost Girls” shows that Mari being a working-class single mother and Shannan being a prostitute had a lot to do with how the police investigated the case. Mari thinks she’s being treated like a second-class citizen and she’s very angry about it.
The movie’s depiction of Shannan only comes in snippets. There’s a home video shown a few times portraying Shannan at 8 or 9 years old (played by Austyn Johnson), singing “Beautiful Dreamer” in a talent contest. There are also brief flashbacks of an adult Shannan (played by Sarah Wisser), with her face obscured, depicting the last-known moments before she disappeared.
According to several eyewitness accounts, the last time Shannan was seen alive in public, she was frantically running alone on a neighborhood street after midnight and incoherently begging for help. There was a 23-minute phone call to 911 from Shannan’s phone, but what was heard on the caller’s end was hard to decipher. Concerned citizens called 911 too, but by the time police arrived more than an hour later, Shannan had disappeared. Because the movie doesn’t have any flashback scenes of what the adult Shannan was like except for this moment of trauma, she’s like a mysterious ghost in the story.
The “Lost Girls” filmmakers don’t reveal anything significant about Shannan’s personality. Viewers will just have to speculate or just go by the tiny hints that are shown in the movie. It’s implied from the way that Mari talks about what Shannan used to be like as a child that Shannan was thought of as a “golden child” and the “star” of the family. Shannan had a lot of potential, but she didn’t live up to those expectations. How and why Shannan became a prostitute is never explained, although the movie does mention that Shannan had a much more troubled home life than Mari was willing to talk about publicly.
For years, Mari had a rocky relationship with Shannan. The movie mentions that Shannan hadn’t lived with her mother since Shannan was 12 years old, because Shannan was put in foster care by Mari, who considered Shannan to be an unruly child. Mari giving up custody of Shannan to put Shannan in the foster care system led to Shannan having abandonment issues and a lot of resentment toward her mother.
The movie doesn’t gloss over this information, but puts more emphasis on this narrative: Shannan (who lived in New Jersey) and Mari were still fairly estranged at the time of her disappearance, but mother and daughter were taking steps to mend their relationship. The movie depicts that Shannan was supposed to have dinner with Mari, Sherre and Sarra in Mari’s home on the day that Shannan disappeared. And when Shannan didn’t show up, they didn’t think much of it at first because it wasn’t that unusual for Shannan to skip appointments and not show up when she was expected.
But something odd happened that turned out to be a crucial part of the investigation. On the day that Shannan disappeared, Mari gets a phone call from a stranger who identifies himself as a doctor who runs a home for wayward women. Mari doesn’t know at the time that Shannan was missing and was last seen running frantically and begging for help. In his phone call to Mari, the doctor says that he is looking for Shannan, because Shannan is one of the women he’s been helping, but Mari tells this stranger over the phone that she doesn’t know where Shannan is either. Mari is so distracted that she can’t fully remember the doctor’s name when she’s asked about it later.
As the hours pass and the Gilberts get more concerned about where Shannan is, they find out that Shannan’s live-in boyfriend Alex Diaz (played by Brian Adam DeJesus) hadn’t heard from her either. (Alex had an alibi at the time Shannan disappeared and was never a suspect.) The family began to suspect that Shannan had run into foul play, but they couldn’t file a missing person report until Shannan had been missing for 48 hours. The movie makes it look like Mari and her daughters didn’t find out that Shannan was working as a prostitute until she disappeared and Alex (who was also Shannan’s pimp) told them that Shannan was a prostitute.
However, Alex expresses skepticism that Mari didn’t at least suspect that Shannan was involved in illegal activities because Mari allegedly demanded that Shannan give her money to help pay Mari’s bills, even though Shannan was supposedly unemployed. When the Gilberts go to where Alex and Shannan lived to question Alex about her disappearance, it’s clear that they blame him for Shannan’s problems. Sherre also makes an angry comment to Alex that indicates that he was physically abusive to Shannan and the family knew it.
Shannan’s prostitution driver Michael Pak (played by James Hiroyuki Liao), who witnessed Shannan frantically running away when she disappeared, also hints that Mari already knew that Shannan was a prostitute before Shannan disappeared and that Mari didn’t care about Shannan being a sex worker, as long as Shannan was giving money to Mari. He comes right out and says that Shannan despised her mother, whom Michael describes in the movie as money-hungry and demanding. Michael (who was also cleared as a suspect) claims that Shannan refused to get in the car and she ran away when he tried to help her during her fateful after-midnight ordeal. He says that he drove around looking for her but eventually gave up and drove away.
“Lost Girls” doesn’t try to make Mari Gilbert look like Mother of the Year, but there’s a definite sense in watching the movie that more could’ve been told about Mari, but this information about her was deliberately left out because the filmmakers didn’t want the audience to feel alienated from the story’s main character. There are predictable scenes of tough-talking Mari storming into police stations and yelling at detectives because she thinks they’re incompetent or not acting fast enough.
Joe Brewer (played by Matthew F. O’Connor), the prostitution client whom Shannan met with before she disappeared, was quickly cleared as a suspect after he passed a polygraph test. Shannan was last seen far from his house. The eyewitnesses who saw Shannan running down the street and desperately going to people’s houses to beg for their help say that she was too incoherent to describe what was wrong. She gave the impression that someone was after her, although the eyewitnesses say they saw no one chasing after Shannan.
Just like in real life, the movie depicts that the investigation into Shannan’s disappearance led to the discovery of more murder victims who were dumped in the same marshy areas near Long Island’s Ocean Parkway. However, Mari was convinced that Shannan was still alive until Shannan’s remains were found more than a year after she disappeared. Many of the people who saw last Shannan, when she was in a hysterical state of mind, assumed that Shannan was on drugs at the time, but an autopsy later revealed that she had no drugs in her system.
Much of “Lost Girls” shows either one of two things: (1) Mari feuding with the investigating police (including holding press conferences that are meant to shame them) and (2) Mari doing her own investigations. It’s the movie’s latter depictions that come across as less authentic. Mari goes snooping around people’s front yards, she looks in windows of places where she’s trespassing, and she interviews neighbors and local business owners, as if she’s a middle-aged Nancy Drew.
“Lost Girls” also has a “good cop/bad cop” cliché that’s frequently used in crime dramas. In this case, the “good cop” is Richard Dormer (played by Gabriel Byrne), who’s leading the investigation into Shannan’s disappearance and murder. The “bad cop” is Dean Bostick (played by Dean Winters), one of Richard’s underlings who’s tasked with doing a lot of the legwork. Richard is portrayed as flawed but willing to help Mari, even when she berates and insults him. Dean is portrayed as a mean-spirited and crude sexist who’s not afraid to show it when he’s rudely dismissive of Mari. At one point, Dean says to a co-worker: “Honestly, who spends this much time looking for a hooker?”
During the investigation, Sherre goes on social media to connect with family members of other suspected LISK murder victims. Eventually, some of these family members travel to New York state to pressure the police to do more in the investigation. The family members also hold vigils and participate in press conferences so that the cases can continue to get media attention. Sherre thinks it’s a good idea for the Gilbert family to meet these other family members who are victims’ advocates, but Mari initially refuses because she thinks that Shannan is still missing and isn’t murdered like the other victims.
Mari doesn’t want to be lumped in with the other victims’ families, and she feels somewhat superior to them. “Lost Girls” author Kolker, who interviewed Mari for the book and followed the case closely, says that Mari was like this in real life too. And just like in real life, the movie shows that Mari aligned herself with the other victims’ families only after she decided that it would be an advantage to show strength in numbers, rather than Mari trying to get media attention all by herself. At one point in the story, Mari exclaims: “It’s our job … to make sure these girls are not forgotten!”
“Lost Girls” portrays Mari as being standoffish yet domineering when she first meets some of the murder victims’ family members (who are all women), who have gathered in a diner. They are:
- Missy (played by Molly Brown), a woman from Connecticut whose sister Maureen was a murder victim.
- Lorraine (played by Miriam Shor), whose daughter Megan was a murder victim.
- Lynn (played by Anna Reeder), a woman from Buffalo, New York, whose daughter Melissa was a murder victim.
- Amanda (played by Grace Capeless), who is Lynn’s daughter and Melissa’s sister.
- Kim (played by Lola Kirke), an on-again/off-again prostitute from North Carolina whose sister Amber was a murder victim.
It doesn’t take long for Mari to make herself the leader of the group. Gradually, she becomes less aloof and more open to making friends with them. Mari bonds the most with easygoing Lorraine and clashes the most with feisty Kim. Sherre often acts as a peacemaker when Mari gets irritated with other members of the group. At times, Mari acts like she wants to distance herself from the group, but Sherre is usually the one to smooth things over and convince Mari that these other women can be allies.
The movie depicts Mari as being the chief organizer of the group’s press conferences and the mastermind of staging events, such as having this group of women march through neighborhoods where the murder victims were last seen. It’s a bit of credibility stretch to believe that Mari singlehandedly did all the things in real life that she’s depicted as doing singlehandedly in the movie. However, one of the most authentic aspects of “Lost Girls” is Mari’s emotional ambivalence over who to trust in her quest for justice. It’s not an easy issue for anyone to deal with, especially if it’s compounded by the trauma of looking for a missing child and feeling let down by authorities who are supposed to help.
“Lost Girls” also has a character named Joe Scalise (played by Kevin Corrigan), an Oak Beach neighbor of cleared suspect Joe Brewer. Joe Scalise is portrayed as being the first to tip off Mari that a physician named Dr. Peter Hackett (played by Reed Birney), another Oak Beach resident, should be looked at as a prime suspect. Dr. Hackett is a prominent member of this gated community, but Joe Scalise says that the doctor has a weird fascination with helping prostitutes, whom Dr. Hackett treats as his patients in the doctor’s home office.
Dr. Hackett’s backyard also leads to the marsh where many of the bodies were found. Mari puts two and two together and figures that this is the same mystery doctor who called her on the day that Shannan disappeared. Dr. Hackett denied it, but phone records later proved it.
Through her investigation, Mari also finds out that the doctor’s home office has a surveillance camera outside that would have recorded Shannan on the street the night she disappeared. But when Mari shows up at the office unannounced to interrogate Dr. Hackett, his wife/office manager tells Mari that any video recording from that camera on that night was automatically recorded over. Mari personally confronts Dr. Hackett, who is creepy, smug and evasive. Mari is also infuriated when she finds out the police never even asked for the video surveillance footage.
“Lost Girls” repeatedly portrays Mari as someone who uncovers evidence or tips that the police then express skepticism about or completely ignore. The movie implies in subtle and not-so-subtle ways that one of the main reasons why Shannan’s case remains unsolved is because the police have been unwilling to thoroughly investigate the privileged and influential people of Oak Beach. It’s an age-old issue of criminal justice being different for people who can afford great lawyers and those who can’t.
Mari continues to get tips from Joe Scalise (who seems to be a composite of real-life people), and the more she finds out, the more she’s convinced that Dr. Hackett knows more than he’s telling. When Mari pleads with the police to further investigate Dr. Hackett, she’s told that Joe Scalise is a questionable source since Scalise has been feuding for years with Dr. Hackett and appears to have a personal vendetta against the doctor.
Joe Scalise warns Mari: “The good people of Oak Beach live by one thing: Be wary of those who could ruin a good thing. You are the wayfarer they’ve been dreading.” The movie certainly gives the impression that Mari and the victims’ families are fighting an uphill battle against people who are actively protecting the murderer or murderers.
Because it’s a well-known fact that these murders remained unsolved and no suspects were arrested at the time that “Lost Girls” was made, there’s a feeling of doom while watching the movie that Mari and all of the victims’ loved ones won’t get the justice that they’re seeking by the end of the film. People who watch this movie who never heard of these murders before might be surprised that there’s really no cathartic ending for “Lost Girls.” The Gilbert family also suffered another tragedy that’s not shown in the movie but is mentioned in the movie’s epilogue, which includes details on what people can do if they have information that they think can help solve this real-life mystery of the Long Island murders.
Ryan is a very talented actress who excels in every role that she does, so her performance carries this movie to transcend some of its flaws. McKenzie and Kirke also have some standout moments, with McKenzie’s adept portrayal of Sherre’s quiet heartbreak and Kirke’s memorable portrayal of Kim’s fiery cynicism. Byrne and Winters give adequate portrayals of the two cops who have the most contact with Mari. These types of cops have been seen before in many crime dramas, although Byrne’s Richard Dormer character is written to have more compassion than his police colleagues in this investigation.
“Lost Girls” can get faulty when the movie presents an unrealistic depiction of Mari’s sleuthing and how much access she had in the police investigation. A fairly ludicrous scene in the movie is when police allow her to enter a crime scene while they’re investigating, as if she’s law enforcement too. In real life, that access wouldn’t be given to someone like Mari, and it never happened in real life with Mari, who was very antagonistic to the police.
The movie also doesn’t give any room to consider other possible suspects, since the filmmakers make it look like Peter Hackett was the one whom Mari thought was the most likely to be guilty of the crimes. The real Peter Hackett, who has denied any connection to the murders and was never named by police as a suspect, moved out of Oak Beach in 2016, and he reportedly lives in Florida. There’s a scene in the movie where Mari confronts him again when she finds out he’s moving out of Oak Beach—and it’s a scene that looks “only in a movie” fake.
“Lost Girls” tends to oversimply many aspects of these complicated Long Island murder cases, but the movie admirably doesn’t lose sight of its intent of trying to get justice for these murders. It’s not a typical murder mystery where the killer or killers get caught and punished in the end. And in that sense, it’s the most harrowing type of true crime story that can be told.
Netflix premiered “Lost Girls” and released the movie in select U.S. cinemas on March 13, 2020.