A young woman runs along a desolate sideroad, arms flailing, knees buckling. Her world would be pitch black if not for the headlights creeping behind her. We can’t see her face, but we can hear her screams. A melodic rendition of Beautiful Dreamer plays, creating a deeply unsettling dissonance. Help! she cries one last time. But the darkness swallows her, leaving only the sounds of wheat rustling in the wind.

This chest-tightening sequence opens Lost Girls, Liz Garbus’ narrative debut, a troubled yet urgent exploration of motherhood and patriarchal apathy, victim-blaming and forgotten women.

Adapted from Robert Kolker’s true-crime thriller, Lost Girls follows Mari Gilbert (Amy Ryan) and her three daughters trying to survive in rural New York. Mari works two jobs, on a construction site and in a diner, while her eldest daughter, Shannan (Sarah Wisser), lives on her own. When Shannan doesn’t appear for a dinner get-together, Mari is unfazed. Forty-eight hours later, that all changes.

Anonymous tips trickle in from boyfriends, nightclub owners, and midnight callers, leading Mari to Long Island’s Ocean Parkway, a picturesque beach town hiding grisly secrets. As dogged as she is, little could prepare her for what follows.

In Long Island, Mari meets Dean Bostick (Dean Winters), a chauvinistic police officer who labels Shannan as “the prostitute” and downplays any concerns. His partner, Richard Dormer (Gabriel Byrne), is a bumbling Commissioner more concerned about media scrutiny than solving missing persons cases. Or so Mari has us believe.

The truth is: we don’t know the investigators’ intentions. Because Lost Girls isn’t your average true-crime story. There’s no scene where they swab surfaces or analyze fingerprints, nor any noteworthy scenes where they interview suspects. Instead, Garbus pits Mari in the driver’s seat, on a racing journey to save her daughter, with Long Island’s gated community as her track.

Lost Girls draws us into Mari’s journey through striking visuals. Garbus continually shifts between close-up shots and extreme wide angles, revealing the wrinkles of an overworked mother and symbolizing her isolation in a world of dismissive men. Daytimes are steeped in desaturated sepia reminiscent of David Fincher’s Zodiac. Nights are inky black with chilly blue-green colour grading à la Fight Club.

With surgical precision, Garbus also crafts her canvas to ooze small town America. Stars and Stripes grace store fronts, backyard porches, and magnets on the fridge. Thick forests loom over sullen neighbourhoods. The roads are cracked and barren, lined by boarded-up mom and pop shops. This could happen anywhere.

Despite its striking visuals, Lost Girls can’t find its other elements. The acting is cartoonish, the dialogue preachy, and the score too muted to heighten any tension. These ingredients are recipe for a TV movie if not for the fiery, believable performance from its female protagonist.

Amy Ryan exudes the real-life Mari Gilbert; she’s brash and antagonistic, aloof and yet profoundly caring. She’s the person who tells a cop to suck her genitals or calls news reporters to hasten the police search. Her demeanour is as piercing and bitter as her peroxide-blonde hair.

But Ryan’s performance alone can’t overcome an otherwise distant narrative. The plot straddles the line of being vague and incomplete, dampening our resonance with Mari and her emotions. This isn’t a suspenseful journey but an intellectual one. One that forces our attention to the issues ailing society.

Lost Girls is wrapped in stilted dialogue, unengaging exposition, and cliché archetypes. But unravel the cobwebs and you find important themes at its core. It examines the extreme pressures of motherhood, mental illness, and loss; the sobering emotional destruction from victim-blaming; and the humanization of society’s neglected women.

You might forget the film, but you won’t forget its message.

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