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Missing is a new entry in the visual storytelling genre that is “screenlife”, the name given to films taking place on a computer, tablet, or smartphone screen. Previous examples of screenlife films include Megan is Missing, Unfriended, Host, and Searching.
This is actually a standalone sequel to the latter, 2018’s Searching, a suspenseful, well-crafted screenlife thriller that had John Cho giving a great performance as a father desperately trying to find his missing daughter. A number of that film’s team members return for this entry, including Searching writer-director Aneesh Chaganty, who has a ‘story by’ credit here and is on board as producer. Also here as executive producer is Timur Bekmambetov, the Nightwatch and Wanted filmmaker who’s been a major proponent of screenlife content, producing a number of films and directing his own screenlife effort with a 2018 thriller titled Profile.
But as for directing here, Missing marks the feature directorial debut for writers-directors Nicholas D. Johnson and Will Merrick, who previously worked together as editors on Searching and Chaganty’s 2015 thriller Run. And for their first film as directors, this is pretty impressive work.
First, a quick plot description. Euphoria star Storm Reid plays teenager June, who we’re introduced to online, of course, as her mother (played by Nia Long) readies to go on vacation to Colombia with her new boyfriend. Following the death of June’s father a number of years earlier, June and her mother now have a bit of a bumpy relationship. It certainly doesn’t help that mum is going on vacation as Father’s Day hits. Mum heads off and June… gets to partying. Flashforward a few days, June is at the airport, waiting for her mother’s arrival. Mum doesn’t turn up. Back at home online, it quickly becomes clear that June’s mother and her boyfriend are… missing.
It’s clearly in the same vein as its predecessor, Searching. Plenty of similarities on display, from the narrative construct to this genre’s obvious stylistic signature, but Missing offers up enough of its own twists and turns and its own personality to stand firmly on its own. Johnson and Merrick have written a fun, fast-paced script here, delivering plot turns – even some logic-stretching ones – with character motivation in mind to keep us emotionally invested. Throughout the film, I was attempting to guess where it was all going, what next twist was around the corner, but more importantly, I was made to care about June and her mother’s predicament – further elevating the nail-biting tension. There was also some nice comedy, particularly aimed at our reliance on and the shortcomings of the online, tech world, that also helped to make it quite the entertaining ride.
The mystery itself unfolds nicely, a dripfeed of hints and reveals that keep us, like June, playing detective in a story that constantly pulls the rug out from under us. Perhaps some viewers will see more plot turns coming than I did, but while I did put some things together early, for the most part I was kept on my toes. Throughout, it had me thinking: “Oooh that means… oh, never mind… oh, that’s obviously… whoa, what?!” Like a good whodunit, we’re given clues and suspects, and an ultimate reveal that, retrospectively, lines up well with the hints that came before. Now, although I was on board for all of it, there were a few reveals that, admittedly, could nudge at the improbability factor. I bought in, but a few big turns, particularly the big swings that occur towards the end, could prove a little illogical for some viewers. Again, I bought in.
As for the “screenlife” of it all, Missing does well to justify just how so much of the action happens to be captured on a screen – even if I couldn’t help but wonder if a teenage girl of today wouldn’t simply be doing all this on her phone, as opposed to a stationary laptop. Of course, having her on her phone the whole time in portrait mode wouldn’t really suit the film, especially when she has so many windows opens – all with info we need to see.
It mostly works, with various online companies and network features used smartly to not only move the story forward, but to ground the film in our tech, online-driven reality. It’s scary just how much of our information is online now, but as the film shows, there is, arguably, a positive factor when the data can be used to help find missing people and thwart criminal activity. There are a number of amusing jabs and notes about various companies and tech capabilities, and there’s even a poke at Netflix and their viewer-driven obsession with real-crime stories. Oh, and, amusingly, you can also look at this film as one of the best-ever commercials for Siri (seriously!).
Good performances help drive the film, particularly that of lead star Storm Reid, who has to convince audiences with an array of emotions – anger, desperation, sadness, suspicion – all delivered directly down the barrel. Good supporting parts from Nia Long, putting in a good amount in a few key scenes as the mother in jeopardy, and Joaquim de Almeida, the Portuguese actor providing a warm, amiable presence as a Columbian gig worker who finds himself helping June in her predicament.
Missing nails the type of formula we saw play out with Searching, so if you’ve seen that film and are now looking for an entirely different beast, perhaps this one won’t be as fresh for you. But, if you’re keen for another suspenseful, energetic screenlife outing, make sure you log on to this one.