Review by Derrick Carter
Running Time: 1 hour 27 minutes
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Directed by: Leslie Libman
Written by: Stephen Kronish & Matthew Tabak
Starring: Mackenzie Mauzy, Eden Brolin, Grace Victoria Cox, Greer Grammer, Christian Madsen, Isabel Shill, Garrett Coffey, Morgan Krantz & Jeff Ward
It seems like TV is in the midst of a true crime craze, not that I’m complaining. When I’m not reviewing films or living my daily life, I’m usually obsessing over murder cases, serial killers, and horrific history in my spare time. The story of Charles Manson and his “Family” has fascinated the masses for a long time and for good reason. It’s an utterly bizarre tale and at its center is a madman who never technically killed anyone, but got his brainwashed hippie clan to do his bloody bidding for him. Lifetime doesn’t exactly seem like the network that would make a film about the Manson Family, but they surprisingly did just that (and are aiming to tackle the Night Stalker over the summer). MANSON’S LOST GIRLS has a couple of neat twists in depicting its disturbing true story, but plays fast and loose with crucial facts and simultaneously becomes bogged down by a cheesy melodramatic approach to the nitty-gritty material.
California 1968: Linda Kasabian (Mackenzie Mausy) is a homeless mother trying to make ends meet for her baby daughter. One summer morning, she’s approached in a diner by a nice young woman who offers to solve all her problems in one magical place. At the isolated Spahn Ranch, Linda finds sex, drugs and charismatic ex-con turned hippie savior Charles Manson (Jeff Ward). Linda finds herself content with a sense of belonging in Manson’s “Family.” However, things drastically change when a record deal falls through and Charlie’s crazed rantings hint towards a race war that his followers need to kick off with a series of murders. Soon enough, blood is shed and madness breaks loose in the Manson Family.
MANSON’S LOST GIRLS gets points for trying something different by following one of Charlie’s brainwashed followers. Through Linda’s narration, we understand the mindset of why a desperate young homeless woman or peace-loving hippie might fall under the spell of someone like Charles Manson. Running at under 90 minutes, I was half-expecting this film to rush into the crazy crimes and violence that emerged within the Family. However, director Leslie Libman displays a steady hand in trying to develop Linda, Susan Atkins, Squeaky Fromme, Leslie Van Houten, and Tex Watson (one of the only male members of the Family). These bits of character development come in the form of montages that play alongside well-chosen tunes of the era (“Happy Together” by Turtles, “Hurdy Gurdy Man” by Donovan, etc.). These early attempts at character development aren’t quite successful though, as the titular lost girls seem somewhat interchangeable.
Only three performances really stick out of the cast. As mentioned before, Linda’s narration is one of the film’s driving forces and Mackenzie Mauzy does a solid enough job of portraying her. The only other Manson girl to stand out from the rest of the generic family members is Eden Brolin’s portrayal of Susan Atkins, who’s easily played off as the craziest Manson Family member aside from Charlie. Speaking of which, Jeff Ward was a poor choice for Charles Manson. The real-life Manson is a raving lunatic who’s scary to watch due to his brain being a pile of mush, thanks to a combination of hard drugs and a trauma-filled past. Ward’s performance is bland, when the real-life Manson was anything but boring.
My biggest complaint about MANSON’S LOST GIRLS is that the film rushes through the most interesting parts of the story: the murders and eventual raid. Scenes of the bloody crimes are downplayed. We only catch small pieces of them, with lines of dialogue filling in the rest. There are times when a less-is-more approach is appreciated, but MANSON’S LOST GIRLS could have greatly benefitted from displaying the darkness of the Family’s actions instead of briefly summarizing them through half-assed exposition. Important facts are flubbed too. Charles Manson never physically killed anyone (it was murder by proxy), but the film tries to assert that he did. Also, these hippies are supposed to be greasy and disheveled, but everyone looks like they’ve just stepped out of a shower.
In spite of its problems, MANSON’S LOST GIRLS isn’t necessarily bad, just forgettable. There are a handful of good scenes and the production values are above average for a made-for-TV movie. Eden Brolin is perfectly cast as psychotic Susan Atkins. However, the film outright lies about key details from the actual case it’s supposed to be presenting. Jeff Ward is woefully miscast as Charles Manson and seems to be forcing his would-be intimidating moments (complete with comically deep voice and clichéd threats).
MANSON’S LOST GIRLS mainly suffers from making the Family members appear generic and glossing over the disturbing details of the notorious murders. I know this is a Lifetime movie, but still, I wonder what the point was of showing the Charles Manson story if the network was too afraid to get into the bloody details of the case. Overall, you’re better off reading up on the true story of the Manson Family, listening to the Last Podcast on the Left three-part episode about Charles Manson, or both. Those options will leave more of an impression than this toned-down, inaccurate take on one of the most disturbing true crime stories in American history.