The ever-used phrase in film and television, “based on a true story” and sadly there seems to be a never ending list of real life stories of the missing, murdered and completely forgotten so be warned, you’re not in for a happy time. Amy Ryan leads the charge as Mari Gilbert, whose daughter disappeared and while the police refused to take any worthwhile action, she was determined to find out what happened to her and in the process uncovered a mass burial site of murdered sex workers. Also starring: Thomasin McKenzie, Gabriel Byrne, Lola Kirke, Oona Laurence, Dean Winters and Miriam Shor.
Being based in the UK, this story is probably not one you’re familiar with and though usually it’s best to know less going in, having googled it beforehand is not really going to damage your enjoyment of the film. In fact, given that it’s unlikely you’re going to find the resolution particularly satisfying, knowing more would probably help curb that disappointment. However, that’s getting way ahead of ourselves because the ending is far from the lead of this film’s problems.
The interesting coincidence is that the screenwriter, Michael Werwie also worked on Extremely Wicked, Shockingly Evil and Vile, another true story and directors of both that film and Lost Girls, came from documentary backgrounds. Moving from documentary to feature film is a tricky transition, the requirements are extremely different and it doesn’t appear that Liz Garbus made that move very smoothly. The style of Lost Girls is so basic that it feels a step-up from a lifetime movie, which is an injustice to the people its portraying, within minutes of its opening a sneaking suspicion crept in that this film was not prepared to do any justice to the Academy award-winning Ryan, or the budding talents McKenzie and Laurence, that suspicion became strongly confirmed as the film went on. The direction does not stand out in any way, there’s nothing new or interesting to it, in fact there’s little to even say about it.
The direction can sneak by with its bland style but what does stand out, is the writing and its complete lack of originality and inability to escape clichés. The dialogue sounds as if it was written by one of those computers that you feed in the necessary details and it writes a story for you, it is missing personality in both the script and its characters, they are given so little backstory or detail that it’s hard to grasp onto them and invest. As sad as it is to say, the story of a missing person has been told so many times over that it isn’t always enough to pull you in and get a deeper sense of sympathy, that comes from the direction, writing and acting, while the last of the three does succeed, it isn’t enough when there’s too little time and poor dialogue. Then there’s the issue of predictability and genuinely obvious intentions, the film leans so hard on who it wants to be the villain or suspect that it feels like they’re baiting you to hate them which feels so overly obvious, you’d think it was a misdirect and if it were, that might work but it unfortunately isn’t.
Call it a spoiler if you will but it has to be said that there’s even a moment where a character says: “How could I call a woman I don’t even know, I’m a doctor not a magician”, either this person doesn’t know how a telephone works which is worrying for a doctor or no-one working on the script noticed how ludicrous this line is. You have to half-hope that the real life version of this person, actually said it just to make it somewhat justified but as that’s incredibly unlikely, it’s back to being ludicrous. There are so many alternatives to that line which would make actual sense, that you really have to question where the logic was, it’s the perfect example of how the script is lacking in any subtlety or mystery. In fairness, it sincerely doesn’t help that the performance of that particular actor is extremely over the top and feeding into that need for it to bait the audience.
The issues this film has, have even gone so far to seep into the cinematography and editing. You have scenes where three actors are having a conversation but only two of them are in focus, and the opening is so blunt that it gives no chance to get to know these characters before the story gets going.
Amy Ryan is a wonderful actress, who rarely gets the credit she deserves for the fantastic variety of roles across film and television that she’s portrayed, she’s gone from winning an Oscar for playing Helene McCready in Gone Baby Gone to stealing hearts across the world as The Office’s Holly Flax, for being the woman to finally make Michael Scott a better man. Her performance in this film is the strongest of the cast by far, she’s the least battered by the lacking elements of the film and still comes out on top but even she cannot save this one. McKenzie unfortunately doesn’t get time to shine here, her character has no personality and though she puts in a great deal of emotion, it still doesn’t quite work. Byrne feels like he’s hitting the same old notes and it’s baffling how Dean Winters managed to find himself amongst these actors of a much higher calibre, he stands out. It’s surprising that they didn’t consider how difficult it would be to take him seriously in a role such as this, when it comes very close to previous comedy roles and when you’re already the odd one out, a dodgy moustache doesn’t help. They both play police officers that are cloaked in stereotypes, particularly sexism and the trip to a strip club doesn’t help either with improving that image.
Lost Girls is a story that should be told, the police failed these women and made them out to be lowly sex workers that no-one cared about, while their families’ efforts to break the police’s ignorance went ignored themselves. It’s the ultimate irony that a director moving from documentary to feature has made a film that would have been better served as a docu-series to explore more of the victim’s stories and the larger picture of these crimes and that no-one is done justice here, it would even have been better served with a mini-series. It falls short on so many levels, that it’s incredibly disappointing and their story deserved much more than this film can offer.