Words by Siddhant Adlakha
Screenlife movies, which turn cinema’s canvas into computer, phone, or tablet screens, date back to at least the year 2000, with the Franco-Belgian dramedy Thomas est amoureux (or Thomas in Love). It was set in a future where everything could be done on computers; 23 years later, in the wake of an isolating global pandemic, the premise seems rather prescient. The 2010s saw an explosion of these types of movies, several of which (like the horror movie Unfriended) were pioneered by Russian producer Timur Bekmambetov. Arguably the best among Bekmambetov’s productions was the 2018 film Searching, the directorial debut of Indian American filmmaker Aneesh Chaganty, which followed a widowed father, David Kim (John Cho), searching for his missing daughter Margot (Michelle La) by cobbling together clues from her personal computer. The new movie Missing serves as a loose conceptual sequel, following a similar broad premise—the strained relationship between a child and single parent, forced into sharp focus when one of them doesn’t return home—though it has little else in common with its predecessor, for better in some ways, though unfortunately, for worse in many others.
Missing is written and directed by Nick Johnson and Will Merrick, the editors on Searching (and on Chaganty’s sophomore thriller, the more traditionally presented Run). Chaganty and his Searching co-writer Sev Ohanian also share story credit on the sequel, making it a second chapter of what could eventually become a long-running anthology (the events of Searching warrant a tongue-in-cheek mention here, but the characters are all new). While Missing is cut from the same cloth as Searching, it feels like Johnson and Merrick’s baby through and through, with an unmistakable musical rhythm that imbues the movie with constant forward momentum, thanks to its frequent lateral pans, video montages, cuts to a doorbell camera, and crash-zooms into specific information—courtesy of their own editors, Arielle Zakowski and Austin Keeling—all unfolding on a single computer screen. The story follows 18-year-old June Allen (Storm Reid) during her last summer home before college, but it flips the Searching script when her mother, Grace Allen (Nia Long), fails to return home to Los Angeles from a trip to Cartagena, Colombia, with her boyfriend, Kevin Lin (Ken Leung).
With limited cash and resources at her disposal, but with an unlimited digital playground—an extremely visual one at that, from Google Maps, to WhatsApp video calls, to live security camera feeds—June races against a ticking clock to find her mother and, along the way, learns secrets about Kevin and various other people in her life. The case of Grace and Kevin’s disappearance grows more labyrinthine and complicated with each discovery, yielding breakneck twists and turns regarding the “who” and “why” of their disappearance. But while this structure serves to keep viewers on their toes (and keep them guessing what is what, and who is who), it often hampers the movie’s emotional core, surrounding its parent-child relationship.
Searching was especially adept at focusing on this central dynamic. Each new discovery, as David sleuthed through Margot’s laptop, brought him a small step closer to recognizing the grief and loneliness she felt, and kept hidden deep within. The details of her digital life brought David to a more complete understanding of his daughter, making Searching a genuinely vital modern text on the way young people’s lives and identities are entwined with social media and the Internet (second only, perhaps, to Netflix’s short-lived true crime mockumentary series American Vandal). Missing, though it opens the door to an amusingly detailed digital landscape via June’s Macbook screen, rarely allows the same nuance.
The story’s twists, rather than offering June a clearer perspective on Grace and Kevin, serve mostly to induce whiplash, as a series of revelations flips June’s (and our) understanding of these characters 180 degrees at a time, followed by even more flips and red herrings. When the story begins, June and Grace’s dynamic is just as strained as Margot and David’s, but by the end of the film, neither mother nor daughter has used the medium of the Internet to truly discover something new about themselves, or about each other, in a way that challenges their preconceptions. After a while, the film’s perspective—one it shares with June, since we’re mostly tethered to her computer—becomes so rife with quick presumptions that no new piece of information has room to stick, since it’s bound to be disproven or subverted in some way mere minutes later. This need to constantly subvert expectations is the film’s Achilles heel. Its twists pile up so quickly as to deny June a coherent emotional arc; the viewer is often fooled, but rarely engrossed.
However, while the movie’s mystery element may not fully connect, its world feels expansive enough to be interesting, despite being limited to a single screen. Through iMessages and video chats, we’re introduced to a crop of supporting characters who—much like in Searching—feel realistically sketched, from the casual diversity of June’s friend group (like her enthusiastic best friend Veena, played by Megan Suri), to the adult characters with whom she interacts. Chief among them is the Cartagena native Javier Ramos (Joaquim de Almeida), whom she first hires via Colombia’s equivalent of TaskRabbit, and who becomes her eyes and ears on the ground. While his initial function is to gather information, he also provides vital reflections from an adult perspective, as a father with his own distant relationship to his son. This secondary plot may not be explored in great detail, but it allows for a more immediate reflection on June’s ongoing story, and the regret she feels over keeping her mother at an arm’s length.
The film is prevented from crumbling by Reid’s fearless performance, as a teen forced to navigate a nightmare scenario for any child (not to mention, the added frustrations of various other red tape constraints and international legalities) while balancing her fears of losing another parent with a sense of desperate, strong-headed urgency. As June, Reid remains on the cusp of hitting an emotional breaking point through most of the movie’s hour and 51 minutes. With much of that runtime focused on the character’s FaceTime window—essentially, on Reid’s closeups—she becomes a vital emotional anchor, especially when the film’s gimmick prevents it from indulging in more traditional cinematic aesthetics to accentuate its drama.
Screenlife constraints can often yield surprising dramatic dimensions, but Missing feels almost afraid to stick to its conceit and see it all the way through. At one point, it enters an extended flashback via another character’s computer screen altogether, unfolding some 15 years ago, and while the film’s impersonation of the Internet in 2008 is quite effective, the result is a break in the movie’s narrative and emotional point of view, as a tale told through a teenager’s eyes. However, that isn’t the movie’s worst offense. Late into its runtime, Missing introduces a whole new set of conceits involving multiple video cameras in various different locations, essentially turning the movie into a piece of traditionally edited action-drama, thus circumventing the screenlife gimmick almost entirely, breaking its own rules without justification—without bringing us closer to an intimate understanding of June and her mother. In the context of its genre cousin, the found-footage horror film, Missing is the Paranormal Activity 2 or 3 to Searching’s Paranormal Activity, building on a focused, claustrophobic aesthetic by introducing so many additional cameras that it may as well just be any other traditionally shot and edited picture.
On the plus side, the sequel’s expansion in scale, from a local mystery to a sprawling, international conspiracy, enhances June’s sense of helplessness, a sense which Reid is more than adept at capturing, and turning into paralyzing emotional vulnerabilities. Missing may not be as airtight or polished as its predecessor, but it rarely slows down or averts its gaze from its powerful central performance, which comes in handy when the movie’s other elements fail to strike a chord.
Published on January 18, 2023