It’s exciting, and fascinating, to see a great director of documentaries try his or her hand at a dramatic feature, since in theory the essential skill set should all be there. The best documentarians possess an acute visual sense, and they are all, of course, potent storytellers. Yet for every attempt at this sort of crossover that triumphs, like Terry Zwigoff leaping from “Crumb” to “Ghost World,” there are many more that don’t. Remember Michael Moore’s “Canadian Bacon”? Or Barbara Kopple’s “Havoc”? Or And then there was Andrew Jarecki’s “All Good Things,” an attempt, by the creator of “Capturing the Friedmans,” to dramatize the life of the accused killer Robert Durst that proved to be such an ambitiously awkward movie that it spurred him to return to nonfiction with the far more powerful Robert Durst docu-series “The Jinx.”
In “Lost Girls,” though, the great documentary filmmaker Liz Garbus (“What Happened, Miss Simone?,” “Searching for Bobby Fischer”) enters the realm of drama as if born to it. The movie, based on a true story that began in 2010 (it’s adapted from Robert Kolker’s 2013 nonfiction bestseller “Lost Girls: An Unsolved American Mystery”), is about a desperate, bedraggled mother of three on Long Island, Mari Gilbert (Amy Ryan), who learns that her oldest daughter, Shannan, who’s around 20 and has been a sex worker living in Jersey City, N.J., has gone missing. Was she murdered? The fear of that drives Mari into a protective but helpless rage — though as we learn, she’s angry about a whole lot of other things, including her own failures as a mother. And that’s before the police find four dismembered bodies off the side of the highway. What starts as a missing-person case turns into the story of a hunt for a serial killer.
“Lost Girls” is built around an aggrieved mother’s obsession to learn, at any cost, what happened to her child, and it may remind you of other mystery dramas rooted in the squalid dangers of the sex industry — earnest (and slyly exploitative) my-daughter-was-a-hooker TV movies, Hollywood thrillers both good and bad. It also has links to Paul Schrader’s “Hardcore” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.” What we expect the movie to be, almost inevitably, is some sort of investigative deep dive into the ugly nuts and bolts of the life Shannan was leading — the druggy, unstable, three-rotating-cell-phones life of a sex worker in the Craigslist era.
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But “Lost Girls” is a haunted and doggedly original drama that shakes off easy categorizations. Set in and around the small town of Ellenville, it’s rooted in a darkly atmospheric Long Island sadness: the main streets moldering under overcast skies, the desolate middle-class anonymity of it all. Mari, a single mom, works two jobs (she has to fight for extra shifts to operate a bulldozer on a construction site, and is also a diner waitress), and her youngest daughter (Oona Laurence), though she seems like a nice girl, is starting to act out at school. Mari, between after-hours beers, is holding her family together, but just barely. And Garbus films all this with a moodiness that gets under your skin. “Lost Girls” is beautifully shot and edited, the rooms bathed in a ticky-tacky forlorn gloom that is very much alive, the actors looking for all the world like real people rather than actors.
As a storyteller, Garbus works with a no-fuss rhythm and flow, holding the audience in the palm of her hand. Yet “Lost Girls,” in following the ups and downs of the actual case of the Long Island serial killer (which remains unsolved), is conceived and staged to be a kind of anti-thriller. It has genuine suspense, but in a way that keeps undermining our expectations. Shannan had told Mari that she was going to come over for dinner, and when she never shows Mari doesn’t think twice about it. But 48 hours later the dread starts to flood in. There have been strange phone calls — one from Shannan’s boyfriend, one from someone named Dr. Hackett. So Mari calls the police, who seem as passive as they could be, and she then walks into the Jersey City police station, going on a tear, demanding that they do something. Which produces only slightly more action.
Are we seeing the world’s most inept cops? Decades of thrillers may encourage you to think so. What we are, in fact, seeing is the real-world gradualism of police work — laced, in this case, with a jaded indifference that sets in as soon as the cops learn that Shannan disappeared after being driven from Jersey City to the gated Long Island community of Oak Beach, where, in a state of freaked-out terror, she left the john she’d made an in-call arrangement with.
She becomes a local news story. But as the film demonstrates, “missing prostitute” is less a human news story than a knee-jerk meme. It encourages not so much a reaction of empathy as a tabloid reflex — which amounts, in the case of the police, to a cynical shrug that says, “What did you expect?” It’s that shrug that Mari — and the movie — crusades against. “Lost Girls” is a mystery that insists that we register, and act upon, the full humanity of a “missing prostitute.”
There are suspects, like Dr. Hackett (Reed Birney), a creepy tall Lawn Guyland blowhard who considers himself the unofficial mayor of Oak Beach. He erased the surveillance tapes of that fateful night, and was that because he had something to hide? There are also scenes in which Mari, along with her young daughter and her teenager (played, with a quiet accusatory fire, by Thomasin McKenzie), join up with family members of the four women whose bodies were found, all of whom were sex workers who advertised on Craiglist. These encounters, which gather around Lola Kirke’s forceful performance as the sister of one of the victims, have a mournful wit that scalds.
But that’s nothing compared to the ravaged fury served up, in scene after scene, by Amy Ryan. The movie is framed as Mari’s war with the cops — even the decent one, played by Gabriel Byrne, who is running the investigation. But what makes Ryan’s performance so resonant is the way that her anger coats a heart of tragic self-awareness. Mari, we learn, was unable to cope with Shannan’s bipolar instability, and gave her away to foster care when she was 12. And she now has so much primal guilt about it that she’s living in denial of who her daughter is. Yet her denial is also a form of morality: She refuses to see her as “prostitute.” And embedded in that refusal is the awareness that Shannan, and all the other Shannans out there, deserve to be protected and treated as human beings who matter. In “Lost Girls,” Liz Garbus takes the serial-killer thriller and turns it on its head, insisting that we see the victims as larger than the crimes that destroyed them.