Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the dramatic film “Mass” features an almost all-white cast (with one African American) representing the middle-class.
Culture Clash: Two men and two women who have a tragedy in common gather in a church meeting room to air out their differences.
Culture Audience: “Mass” will appeal primarily to people interested in dialogue-heavy movies about grief, mental illness and coping with the violent death of a loved one.
The title of the movie “Mass” can have a double meeting. On the one hand, the movie, which takes entirely at or near an Episcopal church, can refer to the religious ceremony called a mass. On the other hand, it could refer to the deadly mass shooting that has directly affected two men and two women, who have gathered at an Episcopal church in an unnamed U.S. city to have a difficult meeting about this tragedy. (The movie was actually filmed in Hailey, Idaho, but almost all of the scenes in the take place indoors.) Fran Kanz, who is known as an actor in the 2012 horror flick “The Cabin in the Woods” and the sci-fi TV series “JourneyQuest,” makes an impressive debut as a feature-film director in “Mass,” a movie which he also wrote. “Mass” had its world premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.
“Mass” is a very well-written and intense film that relies entirely on the actors to make or break the authenticity in this gripping story. The movie centers on four people who have a painful discussion about a tragedy that has left them emotionally broken and damaged. Before these four people meet at the church, the story unfolds in layers, as viewers see a church office manager named Judy (played by Breeda Wool) nervously preparing for these visitors to gather in a room that has been reserved specifically for this meeting.
Judy asks a college-age assistant named Anthony (played by Kagen Albright) to help her get the room ready. Soon, a woman named Kendra (played by Michelle N. Carter) arrives to inspect the room and make sure that it’s appropriate for the meeting. Kendra seems to have been the one to choose the church as a meeting place. Judy is eager to please Kendra, who looks over the room in a business-like and no-nonsense manner.
The first clue that this meeting is about a traumatic, violent incident is when Kendra notices some stained-glass hanging decorations on the windows. Red is one of the decorations’ main colors. And from a distance, the red could look like bloodstains. Judy notices it too, and anxiously explains to Kendra that these stained-class decorations were made by some of the church kids. Judy says that the decorations could be removed before the visitors for the meeting get there. Kendra says it isn’t necessary.
Kendra is obviously the meeting’s facilitator, but she tells Judy that she will not be in the room during the meeting, in order to give the people in the meeting their privacy. It’s another clue that the meeting is of a very sensitive and confidential nature. Is Kendra a social worker? A counselor? Someone else? It’s never really made clear what her occupation is, but in the brief time that she’s on screen, Kendra seems to have the role of someone who is supposed to remain neutral in something that seems to be controversial.
Who are the people who will be participating in this tension-filled meeting? The married couple that viewers see first are Gail and Jay Perry, who drove down from an unnamed city for this gathering. Gail (played by Martha Plimpton) and Jay (played by Jason Isaacs), who are in their 50s, drive up to the church and park their car outside. However, Gail gets nervous and tells Jay to drive away so she can have more time to brace herself for this meeting.
They park near a fenced field that has a red ribbon tied to the fence. The camera lingers on the ribbon. It’s an obvious sign that this was the site of a makeshift memorial. Who died and why are these four people meeting? All the clues are there: A violent death, a makeshift memorial, two couples having an emotional discussion together for the very first time.
Gail feels ready to go back to the church. And when Gail and Jay go back to the church, they are greeted warmly by Judy and Kendra. Based on Judy’s comments, she’s not so eager to meet the other two people who arrive next, although when they do arrive she has a forced, polite smile. The other two visitors are a divorced couple in their 60s. It’s obvious that they’re no longer together when they arrive separately and aren’t seen wearing wedding rings.
Former spouses Richard (played by Reed Birney) and Linda (played by Ann Dowd) haven’t seen each other in a while. Richard no longer lives in the area, because he said that he traveled by plane for this somber occasion, and later he says he won’t be staying in the area for the rest of the day. Richard gives the impression that he’s a busy businessman, while the career backgrounds of Gail, Jay and Linda are never revealed. At one point in the story, Richard says that he isn’t religious, so meeting in a church is outside of his comfort zone.
Linda has brought a bouquet of wild flowers, which she offers to Gail as a gift. Gail declines to take the flowers but later changes her mind in order to not create any further tension. It’s another clue about where the hard feelings are between these four people. After some awkward small talk is exchanged, Kendra and Judy show Gail, Jay, Linda and Richard to the meeting room and leave the four visitors there to talk. Kendra says before she leaves them together, “I’m hopeful that we think this was a good thing to do by the time we leave here today.”
And that’s when the movie starts to peel back the layers of turmoil and trauma that have led to this excruciating meeting. It won’t be revealed in this review who died and who committed the mass murder. But it’s enough to say that those details come out in bits and pieces. And then the floodgates open with the blame, anger, sadness and confusion over how the murders could have been prevented.
What makes “Mass” so outstanding is that there isn’t a single line of dialogue or action that looks or sounds phony. Because 80% of the movie takes place in this one room, “Mass” could very much be a play. It’s not an easy film to watch for anyone who is very sensitive to the topic of mass murder. However, “Mass” presents an excellent story that looks at this type of tragedy from various perspectives of loved ones who are left behind.
All four of the main actors give stellar performances. However, Plimpton and Dowd shine the most because their characters Gail and Linda express their emotions more freely than the men do. “Mass” is also a raw look at different ways that people grieve and try to make sense of a senseless crime. And it’s also a realistic portrayal of survivor guilt and how people who didn’t cause the crime can still feel responsible for it.
Kanz’s directing style is as minimalist as his writing style is rich with naturalistic language. It’s a combination that works for the movie’s setting. And the movie greatly benefits from being well-cast with actors who never strike a false note with their characters. “Mass” is a movie that will linger in people’s memories long after they watch it. And it will be a story that will come to mind when people think about how mass murders cause untold traumas that don’t necessarily make headlines.
UPDATE: Bleecker Street will release “Mass” on a date in 2021 to be announced.
Culture Representation: Taking place in New York City, the comedic film “The Forty-Year-Old Version” features a racially diverse cast (African American, white, Latino and Asian) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.
Culture Clash: A struggling African American playwright decides to reinvent herself as a rapper a few months before her 40th birthday, and she has to come to terms with her definition of “success” versus “selling out,” as she deals with racism and sexism.
Culture Audience: “The Forty-Year-Old Version” will appeal primarily to people interested in stories of self-identity from an African American perspective.
“The Forty-Year-Old Version” is a comedic film that skillfully shows a mid-life crisis that has never before been portrayed on screen: Just a few months before she turns 40 years old, a struggling New York City playwright, who’s looking for a new way to express her creativity, decides that she wants to become a rapper. It’s a career move that’s risky and outside her comfort zone not only because hip-hop isn’t generally welcoming of female rappers but it’s a music genre that also has incredibly difficult barriers for beginner rappers who are over the age of 30. Radha Blank makes a captivating feature-film debut as the star, writer, director and one of the producers of “The Forty-Year-Old Version,” a semi-autobiographical movie that strikes the right balance of showing uncomfortable truths with whimsically raw comedy.
“The Forty-Year-Old Version” is entirely in black and white, which gives the movie a somewhat timeless look. This creative choice might also draw comparisons to filmmaker Spike Lee’s 1986 feature-film debut “She’s Gotta Have It,” which was also entirely in black and white. Both movies are comedies with an independent-minded woman as the main character. And although the overall tone is comedic, both movies also have underlying serious social commentary about how relationships are affected by gender roles and race.
In “The Forty-Year-Old Version,” Blank portrays a playwright named Radha, who is about to turn 40 in a few months, and she feels like her life is imploding. She’s grieving over the death of her beloved widowed mother. Radha is also having financial problems and is trying not to get depressed that she hasn’t lived up to her expected potential.
Years ago, Radha received a “30 Under 30” prize by an influential theater organization, to signify that she was considered a promising playwright under the age of 30. And now, all these years later, Radha can’t even get a workshop of her latest play. To pay her bills, Radha teaches an after-school class on dramatic writing at a local high school. But even in that job, she’s not appreciated, because some of the teenage students in her small class (which has eight students) don’t really want to be in her class and show little to no interest in theater.
Radha’s latest play that she’s hoping to get produced is called “Harlem Ave,” which is set in New York City’s predominantly black neighborhood of Harlem. She describes the play as being about “a young man who inherited a grocery store from his parents and struggles to keep the business afloat with an activist wife.” Radha wants the play to be reflective of the real Harlem, by having a predominantly black cast.
In the hopes of getting “Harlem Ave” in regional theater, Radha meets with a pretentious acquaintance named Forrest Umoja Petry (played by Andre Ward), who owns the local OUmoja Theatre, an off-Broadway venue whose specialty is African American stage productions. Forrest, who founded the theater in 1988, doesn’t really take Radha that seriously. Instead of discussing the play with Radha, he makes her meditate with him in his office that he likes to fill with burning incense.
Radha’s best friend Archie (played by Peter Kim), an openly gay Korean American, is an aspiring theater producer. It’s later revealed in the movie that Radha and Archie have been best friends since high school. They were each other’s prom dates back then, when Archie was still closeted to most people and afraid to tell his family about his sexuality. Archie is staunchly loyal to Radha, but he disagrees with her “I’ll never sell out” mindset when it comes to getting her plays financed. Radha wants to be a success, but only on her terms.
Archie excitedly tells Radha that he’s scored an invitation to a black-tie party that will be attended by a powerful, Tony-winning producer named J. Whitman (played by Reed Birney), who could be a likely investor in “Harlem Ave.” Archie wants Radha to be his “plus one” at the party, which Archie thinks will be the perfect opportunity for Radha to pitch her play to Whitman. Radha is very reluctant to go to this party and tells Archie: “J. Whitman only does black ‘poverty porn’ plays. I’d rather do a workshop with Forrest and his stinky-ass ancestors than suck up to J. Whitman!”
But after some pleading from Archie, Radha eventually agrees to go to the party. The soiree is upscale and filled with a lot of well-to-do “theater patron” types, who are usually over the age of 60. It’s the type of party where Archie and Radha stand out because they’re relatively young by comparison, and they’re two of the few non-white people at the party.
Sure enough, Radha gets a chance to talk to Whitman, so she tells him about “Harlem Ave.” Whitman says he would be interested in investing, but he thinks the play should be about “gentrification.” It’s really code for saying, “There needs to be white people as main characters in the play, in order to sell it to a predominantly white audience.”
Radha thinks it’s demeaning for Whitman to suggest that she change her play in this way, but she doesn’t say it out loud to Whitman. Instead, she politely tells him that she doesn’t want to change to focus of her play. She’s ready to end the conversation, but a tone-deaf Whitman adds insult to injury and tells Radha: “I still need a writer for my Harriet Tubman musical.”
This racial condescension enrages Radha, who then lunges at Whitman and begins strangling him. It’s played for laughs in the movie, but the scene demonstrates how infuriating people like Whitman can be, because they think of themselves as “open-minded liberals” but they believe in the same racist stereotypes as close-minded conservatives. Radha is unapologetic for her outburst, but Archie is horrified. Archie tells Radha that he wants to smooth things over with Whitman, but Radha tells Archie not to bother.
Publicly, Radha is defiant. Privately, she’s wracked with self-doubt. In her small and dumpy apartment where she lives alone, she cries in despair and wails: “I just want to be an artist! Mommy, tell me what to do!”
Just then, Radha hears rap music playing nearby. She has a silent “a-ha” moment and suddenly feels inspired to write rap lyrics. The next day, Radha tells Archie that she’s going to try something new with her life: She wants to make a rap mixtape and see where it’ll take her in a possible career as a rapper.
Archie is incredulous and thinks Radha shouldn’t give up her career in theater. But Radha has already made up her mind. Whitman has decided to forgive Radha for physically attacking him, but he tells Archie that he should be a theater producer and that Archie shouldn’t be wasting his time with Radha, whom Whitman calls a “washed-up writer.”
Radha hears about a home recording studio in Brooklyn that works with aspiring rappers, so she goes there to see if she can find a producer who can make the music for her lyrics. When she goes to the cramped, smoke-filled apartment, she’s the only female in a roomful of guys in their 20s. A sullen-looking 26-year-old, who goes by the name D (played by Oswin Benjamin), is the producer/engineer operating the recording equipment. He barely acknowledges Radha in this first meeting.
The entire meeting is awkward because it’s obvious that these guys don’t take Radha seriously. When one of them asks Radha what her rap name is, she’s taken aback and makes up a name on the spot: RadhaMUSPrime. It’s a play on words of the “Transformers” robot hero character Optimus Prime.
Radha has the money to pay for a recording session. D seems reluctant to work with her though, because it’s obvious that he thinks she’s a joke. That is, until Radha starts rapping her song “Poverty Porn,” a scathing rebuke of greedy people who make money in entertainment by exploiting African American poverty. When D sees her perform and hears the lyrics, he shows signs of being impressed with Radha’s talent.
“Poverty Porn” is told from the point of view of the exploiter who would rather make entertainment showing African Americans as poor and down-trodden instead of showing the reality that most African Americans are not poor but are middle-class. The lyrics of the chorus include: “You regular blacks are just such a yawn. Yo, if I want to get on, better make me some poverty porn.”
Radha’s experience with Whitman is the obvious inspiration for “Poverty Porn,” but the lyrics suggest that Radha has had a lifetime of these racist experiences in trying to be a successful playwright. Later in the story, Whitman lets it be known that he still wants to be the lead producer of “Harlem Ave,” but only if Radha makes the changes that he wants. The offer comes when Radha is at a low point in her confidence and financial stability, so she has to make a choice on whether or not she will “sell out” and do the play with Whitman in charge.
“The Forty-Year-Old Version” also has a subplot about two of Radha’s students who clash with each other almost every time that they’re in class together: a tough-talking butch lesbian named Rosa (played by Haskiri Velazquez) and a foul-mouthed diva named Elaine (played by Imani Lewis), who is sought-after by many of the boys in the school. Rosa has a crush on Radha and doesn’t try to hide it. For example, Rosa makes gushing comments about Radha such as, “She’s like Queen Latifah and Judge Judy rolled into one!”
Meanwhile, Elaine is often disrespectful to Radha and acts like being in Radha’s class is a waste of time. One day, Elaine insults Radha by calling her a failed playwright. Rosa jumps to Radha’s defense and gets in a brawl with Elaine. Rosa and Elaine are both punished by the school, but the two teens still act like enemies when they’re together in the classroom. Much later, Radha sees something in the school hallway which explains why Elaine is acting the way that she does.
As Radha spends more time with D to write and record her rap songs, she and D become closer, even though their personalities are almost polar opposites. Radha is talkative and high-strung. D is quiet and laid-back. There’s also their age difference and the fact that they have very different social circles.
Even though Radha is trying to be a rapper, she comes from the intellectual theater world, while D has more of a “street life” background. Both Radha and D have a strong sense of identity as African Americans, but their respective upbringings and educations have taken them on different paths. Their relationship is a situation where hip-hop really did bring them together.
Much of the absurdist comic relief in the story comes from recurring appearances of neighbors as a sort of “Greek chorus” who make funny and sometimes rude remarks separately to the camera, as if they’re speaking to or about Radha. These outspoken neighbors are an elderly African American woman (played by Jackie Adam), who’s called Snazzy in the film’s credits; a young Dominican woman (played by Cristina Gonzalez); an elderly Korean vendor (played Charles Ryu); and two of Radha’s students named Waldo (played by Antonio Ortiz) and Kamal (played by T.J. Atoms). When they’re asked what they think of Radha turning 40, the young woman replies, “When a single woman turns 40, she’s like fruit in the ground for the bugs to eat.”
There’s also a scene-stealing homeless man named Lamont (played by Jacob Ming-Trent), who hangs out near Radha’s apartment building and lets her know that he watches all the comings and goings that happen to and from her home. During a pivotal conversation that Radha has on the street when she asks someone for help with her career, Lamont who’s watching nearby shouts: “Give the bitch a chance! Her desperation is making me nauseous! Although technically, you’ve got to eat something to throw up.”
Because “The Forty-Year-Old Version” is a low-budget film, it’s fairly obvious that many of the cast members are not professional actors. Some of the cast members deliver their lines better than those whose acting is a little rough around the edges. But that’s part of the movie’s charm, since it looks like many of the people in the movie are really playing versions of themselves and aren’t doing a slick acting job. Of the main cast members, Blank and Kim fare the best in scenes that show the genuine and sometimes volatile friendship between Radha and Archie.
One of the best things about “The Forty-Year-Old” version is how it authentically reveals layers to the story without making it too cluttered. Viewers will get poignant glimpses into Radha’s family life and how her mother’s death affected her. Radha’s brother Ravi (played by Blank’s real-life brother Ravi Blank) wants her to help him decide what to do with their mother’s possessions, but Radha has been avoiding his phone calls. When the siblings eventually meet up, they have a heart-to-heart conversation that’s a standout scene in the movie.
It’s revealed in the story that Radha and Ravi’s parents were both artists but had to take day jobs to support the family. The siblings’ mother was a painter who worked as a teacher, while their father was a jazz drummer who worked as a plumber. Radha is single with no children, so she doesn’t have the family financial obligations that her parents had. However, “The Forty-Year-Old Version” shows that one of her underlying fears is not being able to fulfill her dream of becoming a professional and respected artist.
At an age when most people are settled down and secure in their careers, Radha is restless and insecure in her chosen profession. What makes this story stand out is how she takes a bold risk to “blow it all up” to start over in hip-hop, which is a male-dominated and often-misogynistic industry. It’s a risk that most women in the same circumstances would never take. But “The Forty-Year-Old Version” accurately shows what happens when artists follow their instincts, despite any massive obstacles and naysayers in their way.
Thanks to her tour-de-force work in front of and behind the camera, Blank makes “The Forty-Year-Old Version” a truly unique gem of a film that feels very personal yet relatable to anyone who knows what it’s like to be underestimated or discriminated against simply because of race, gender or other physical characteristics. There are plenty of examples of subtle and not-so-subtle discrimination in the film.
However, “The Forty-Year-Old Version” isn’t too heavy-handed about showing this bigotry, and Radha isn’t wallowing in a self-pity party. She just gets on with what she has to do. But there are also moments when Radha has to decide if she should listen to “rational” advice or follow what’s in her heart.
And any decision to go against the grain and listen to her inner voice requires her to be extremely vulnerable when it would be much easier to go along with what she’s pressured to do by other people. There’s a telling moment in the movie where Radha, who usually wears a head wrap that completely covers her hair, decides to take off this head wrap, and it’s symbolic of her shedding a self-protective shell and showing her true self.
“The Forty-Year-Old Version” is also an incisive commentary on artistic integrity and how it’s often at odds with financial offers that artists can get. At some point, artists who expect to be paid for their work must ask themselves: “Is this monetary offer in line with my values? If it isn’t, is it worth compromising my integrity for what I would be paid? And how much control of my work do I want to give to other people?”
The music of “The 40-Year-Old Version” is a mixture of mostly hip-hop and jazz, which perfectly exemplify the two artistic worlds that Radha inhabits in the story: the rough, street-oriented world of rap and the more refined, traditional world of theater. In addition to “Poverty Porn,” original songs with Blank’s lyrics include “This Is 40,” “F.Y.O.V.,” “Mamma May I,” “”Pound Da Poundcakes” and “WMWBWB,” which stands for “White Man With a Black Woman’s Butt,” a reference to a scene in a movie when Radha sees a white man with a very round and large bottom.
Other songs that are part of “The Forty-Year-Old Version” soundtrack include Queen Latifah’s “Wrath of My Madness,” Babs Bunny’s “I Want In,” Nai Br.XX’s “Adventure Time,” Quincy Jones’ “Love and Peace” and several tunes from jazz artist Courtney Bryan. Radha says in the movie that her song “F.Y.OV.” can stand for things other than “Forty-Year-Old Version,” such as “Find Your Own Voice,” “Find Your Own Vision” or “Fill Your Own Void.” They are all perfect descriptions of the movie’s overall impactful message.
Netflix premiered “The Forty-Year-Old Version” on October 9, 2020.
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.