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Lost Girls Book and Movie Review

Updated on April 19, 2020
Alexandria Acord profile image

Alexandria is a true-crime-loving librarian who's always out for a new spin on this popular genre and what it has to say about society.

Who Mourns the Missing Prostitutes?

If you've seen a true crime show in the past few years, you probably know what a classical victim in a high-profile case looks like. She's young, successful, often white, and has a presence that "lights up a room." Her parents, friends, and relatives are often the sorts of people who can afford to have a massive search without bringing shame on their families. On the contrary, they gain public sympathy from all around, and a quick response from law enforcement.

But what happens when a missing girl doesn't fit this societal mold? For centuries, serial killers have targeted prostitutes and other sex workers out of a perceived notion that they will not be missed. While such a crime is most often associated with far-off figures like Jack the Ripper, a series of disappearances in Long Island during the Internet age have shed light on a new killer--and a new tool for targeting old prey. Through Robert Kolker's book Lost Girls and Liz Garbus's new Netflix movie of the same name, true crime devotees will learn that the classic question of "who mourns the missing prostitute" is as easy as it is with any missing persons case--more often than not, it's the parents.

A poster for the new Netflix movie, Lost Girls.
A poster for the new Netflix movie, Lost Girls.

What is Lost Girls About?

In both the movie and the book, the story starts in May 2010, when a sex worker named Shannan Gilbert mysteriously disappears during a call to the remote Gilgo Beach community in Long Island. Before her disappearance, residents recall seeing her knocking desperately on doors, convinced that someone was out to kill her. Her driver, like many of the citizens, assumed she was on drugs at the time and drove off. After hearing about her daughter's disappearance, Mari Gilbert strives to find her daughter through any means necessary, including heckling the police.

After several months, the police receive a breakthrough along Ocean Parkway, a busy stretch of road surrounding Gilgo Beach. Four bodies were found there, wrapped in burlap bags, but none of them were Shannan's. Neither were any of the subsequent bodies, but law enforcement still noticed a pattern--all the targets were East Coast women lured to Long Island through Craigslist prostitution and the hopes of easy cash. As Mari Gilbert continues her search for Shannan, her paths intermingle with the relatives of other missing girls, and they all attempt to regain their lives after being caught in the crosshairs of the Long Island serial killer.

Director Liz Garbus's Approach

The film version of Lost Girls, released on March 13, 2020, mainly focuses on Mari Gilbert, with the other victims' families mainly operating as background characters. This, in and of itself, is not necessarily a bad choice for a movie adaptation, since Kolker had 388 pages to cover a story that's expected to be told in 95 minutes. However, Mari Gilbert herself is an polarizing character straight out of a Gillian Flynn novel, and your feelings towards her will likely influence your viewing experience.

Though extremely well-played by Amy Ryan, who fully understands the complexity of Mari's character, Mari made a variety of decisions before and after Shannan's disappearance that call her reputation as a saintly mother into question. It's frequently made clear in both film and book that Mari did not care much for her daughter before she went missing, seeing her as a problem child with bipolar disorder that she would be better off without. In fact, she gave up Shannan to foster care when she was twelve, and as Kolker's book makes clear, Shannan lived the rest of her life seeking her mother's approval.

Even as Garbus explores these darker parts of Mari's character, audiences may still find themselves put off by the story's focus on someone who comes off as an abusive mother attempting to gain sympathy. Shannan's sisters are clearly neglected during the search, as their mother abrasively refuses their advice and drowns in pity over Shannan while younger sister Sarra (Oona Lawrence) shows clear signs of undiagnosed schizophrenia. In a particularly emotional scene, middle sister Sherre (Thomasin Mackenzie) learns why Shannan was really estranged from the family, and asks Mari if Sarra will be the next to go.

While the movie provides a worthy introduction to the case, it's ultimately hampered by overemphasis on Mari and not enough emphasis on the original four victims--Lola Kirke is particularly interesting as the similarly complicated Kim, a prostitute who fills the middle-aged mothers in on the dark underbelly of the Internet. In the book, Kim is given equal screen time, and her motivations for continuing her trade are fully explored--she hopes to be hired by her sister's killer to inflict her own brand of vigilante justice on him. Such a plot deserves to have its own documentary rather than just being a piece of larger one, something that could have been solved by giving Lost Girls the Tiger King treatment as a Netflix limited series or TV miniseries.

Gilgo Beach, the gated community where the crimes were committed.
Gilgo Beach, the gated community where the crimes were committed.

Author Robert Kolker's Approach

Robert Kolker, an investigative reporter known for his work with New York Magazine and Bloomberg News, faced the daunting task of chronicling this unsolved crime in 2013's Lost Girls. Without a killer to focus on, Kolker instead decided to make Lost Girls a rare true crime book that looks almost exclusively into the victims' lives. The book focuses on the five best-known victims of the killer: Maureen Brainard-Barnes, Melissa Barthélemy, Amber Lynn Costello, Megan Waterman, and Shannan Gilbert.

While Netflix's Lost Girls revolves around the parents and the impact of the killings, Kolker instead aims to tell the stories of the women's lives before they met the killer. Though not everyone will enjoy reading about these fairly mundane details, especially those used to more grisly true crime, these life stories shine a light on the societal failures that led to their brutal fates. Many lived in dying blue-collar towns where employment was scarce, leading them straight into the easy trap of out-of-state Craigslist prostitution calls. Others suffered from mental illness, sexual assault, or parental neglect. Kolker asserts that the women themselves had bright dreams like many Americans, but were caught in a corrupt system that took advantage of them even before they were killed.

Lost Girls is best approached as a book about prostitution, rather than one about murder. After all, in order to understand the crime, Kolker sees it best to examine the people behind it--the victims, the Gilgo Beach residents, and so on. It is not a book for people who want a definitive ending as opposed to he-said, she-said hearsay. But for people who want to fully understand how such an immense crime could have taken place, Lost Girls provides a look into how online prostitution facilitates serial killers--and, perhaps more importantly, how society facilitates online prostitution itself.

© 2020 Alexandria Acord


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