The opening shot of Liz Garbus’ Lost Girls is haunting. Shot in dark, but vibrant tones, the skeletal silhouettes of trees blowing in the wind starkly outlined in the blue-ish early morning. Suddenly, a young woman bursts onto an otherwise empty road, her body spot-lit by headlights. She’s holding a phone and crying, clearly terrified. The camera follows her as she runs away from the car, desperately trying to distance herself from what is obviously a threat to her life. And then...nothing. The camera cuts back to the empty road. The girl is gone — lost.
This would all be quite terrifying on its own, but what adds to the ominous atmosphere is the song playing in the background. Lola Kirke (Mozart in the Jungle, American Woman), who also acts in the movie, covers “Beautiful Dreamer,” a classic song written by Stephen Foster recorded by Bing Crosby in 1940, and The Beatles in 1963.
As we later find out, the woman in the scene is Shannan Gilbert, the 24-year-old missing daughter of Mari Gilbert, played by Amy Ryan in the film. Her disappearance acts as a catalyst for a chain reaction that leads to the discovery of 10 bodies buried on a stretch near Gilgo Beach, on Long Island, indicating that a serial killer has been targeting sex workers in that area for decades.
Garbus’ take on true crime is very different from what we’ve seen before. She avoids the common tropes, focusing not on the perpetrator or the process of solving the crime (which remains unsolved to this day), but the victims and their families. Kirke plays Kim, the sister of one of the victims, and someone who has also taken on sex work in the past. But in Lost Girls, there’s no room for judgement. Garbus shows us these women as full, vibrant characters. They’re more than the labels society has given them. They have hopes and dreams.
That’s where this cover of “Beautiful Dreamer” gets particularly sinister. On the surface, it’s a hopeful song. The opening lyrics go: “Beautiful dreamer/ Wake unto me / Starlight and dewdrops// Are awaiting thee”
It hints at a bright future, of a young woman whose creativity is about to take flight, whose daytime drudgery disappears with the coming of night. “Sounds of the rude world / Heard in the day / Led by the moonlight / Have all passed away”
Where the Crosby version is smooth, the Beatles cover is more pop-y, giving the feeling of an ode to the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (yes, the trope is THAT old). But in Kirke’s version, sung with a lullaby-like cadence and melody, the words take on a whole different meaning. The innocence of the lyrics is wistful and sad. They’re about the potential that’s been stolen from these young women. It’s in the same moonlight that these women head out to strangers’ houses, responding to Craigslist ads that might very well put them in danger.
The song makes the whole scene pop, but Kirke’s involvement wasn’t always guaranteed. “Liz was using a different version of the song during editing,” she told BlackBook. “She remembered that I sing and asked if I’d be interested in recording it. I loved the idea because of the way the song is woven into the story of the film, and the role I play.”
“Beautiful Dreamer” comes back at several points throughout Lost Girls. It’s the song young Shannan sings in the videos Mari has of her pageant days, and the melody also plays as a leitmotif, repeated throughout. It’s almost a reminder that no matter where Shannan was in her life — young and hopeful, older and a little wiser — she was still a person, a beautiful dreamer who shouldn’t be defined by her tragic end.