MOVIE "Lost Girls"

WHEN|WHERE Starts streaming Friday on Netflix. Also screening at Cinema Arts Centre, Huntington

WHAT IT'S ABOUT In May 2010, a 24-year-old sex worker named Shannan Gilbert disappears after an appointment with a client in the isolated community of Oak Beach. When Suffolk County police seem to lose interest in the case, her mother, Mari Gilbert (Amy Ryan), drives from her home in upstate Ellenville to Long Island, where she begins putting pressure on Police Commissioner Richard Dormer (Gabriel Byrne) to take action. After searching the nearby woods, police discover the bodies of four other sex workers dumped along Gilgo Beach — the first evidence of the figure we now call the Long Island Serial Killer. "Lost Girls" is inspired by the nonfiction book by New York magazine contributor Robert Kolker.

MY SAY "Lost Girls" begins with an upsetting image: A terrified Shannan Gilbert, running down a dark street followed by steady headlights. The camera puts us in the driver's seat so we can see her terrified face when she looks over her shoulder. The creaky old ballad "Beautiful Dreamer" — Shannan's favorite as a child — sets a mocking tone, as in a horror movie. 

It's a strangely cheap and cheesy opening to an otherwise compassionate drama that wants to focus on the women behind the headlines. Thanks to a fierce, heartfelt performance from Ryan ("Gone Baby Gone"), "Lost Girls" shows us how people at the bottom of society's ladder can simply slip off the rungs without a trace. At the same time, the movie feels obligated to tantalize us with the kinds of creepy details and spine-tingling moments we've come to expect from true-crime television. The result is a well-intentioned but uneven feature debut from the versatile documentarian Liz Garbus ("What Happened, Miss Simone?"), working with screenwriter Michael Werwie. 

"Lost Girls" is most compelling when it focuses on Mari and her hardscrabble existence. She's holding down two jobs and trying to raise two daughters, Sherre, a sharp-witted preteen (Thomasin McKenzie, of "Jojo Rabbit"), and Sarra, a woeful young thing on mood-stabilizing medication (Oona Laurence). No wonder Mari sometimes sounds like a bitter bumper-sticker: "Another day in paradise," she grumbles. 

She meets several kindred spirits when relatives of other vanished sex workers emerge. At a local diner, they vent their frustration with the media's coverage of their murdered loved ones. "It's all 'prostitute, hooker, sex worker,'" Mari complains. "It's never 'mother, sister, daughter.'" Hovering at the group's edges is another potential tragedy: Kim (Lola Kirke), the sister of a victim and herself still a prostitute.

The movie stumbles when it attempts to mimic a police procedural or a whodunit. Byrne's Dormer is little more than a cardboard cop in an overcoat; the amateur sleuth Joe Scalise (Kevin Corrigan) only muddies the narrative waters for us; and too much time is spent with Dr. Peter Hackett, an Oak Beach resident whose involvement with Shannan has never been clear. (Reed Birney plays him, confusingly, as alternately naive and sneering.) Because the filmmakers have no additional light to shed here, "Lost Girls" often gets lost in a swamp of maybes and who-can-says.

You may already know that police eventually decided Shannan Gilbert was not, in fact, a victim of the Long Island Serial Killer — a somewhat deflating conclusion to this story. And if you aren't familiar with what eventually becomes of Mari, you're in for an unhappy surprise. All told, "Lost Girls" succeeds in humanizing a grisly news story, but it makes for less than satisfying viewing.

BOTTOM LINE A compassionate drama hampered by true-crime cliches.

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