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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 Joe Berlinger’s misbegotten “Blair Witch” sequel? Or Barbara Kopple’s “Havoc”? Or Michael Moore’s “Canadian Bacon”? 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 living and working as a prostitute out of 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...
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