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A loose sequel to 'Searching', this tense and gripping new screenlife thriller follows a teenager desperately looking for her mother.
By Sarah Ward
February 23, 2023
By Sarah Ward
February 23, 2023

Screenlife films such as Missing should be the last thing that moviegoers want. When we're hitting a cinema or escaping into our streaming queues, we're seeking a reprieve from the texts, chats, pics, reels, searches, and work- and study-related tasks that we all stare at on our phones and computers seemingly 24/7. (Well, we should be, unless we're monsters who can't turn off our devices while we watch.) There's a nifty dose of empathy behind thrillers like this, its excellent predecessor Searching, and the similar likes of Unfriended and Profile, however, that relies upon the very fact that everyone spends far too much time living through technology. When an on-screen character such as Missing's June (Storm Reid, The Last of Us) is glued to the gadget on their desk or lap, or in their hand — when they're using the devices that've virtually become our new limbs non-stop to try to solve their problems and fix their messy existence, too — it couldn't be more relatable.

As Missing fills its frames with window upon window of June's digital activities, cycling and cascading through FaceTime calls, Gmail messages, WhatsApp downloads, Google Maps tracking, TikTok videos, TaskRabbit bookings, plain-old websites and more, it witnesses its protagonist do plenty that we've all done. And, everything she's undertaking feels exactly that familiar — like the film could be staring back at each member of its audience rather than at an 18-year-old who starts the movie unhappy that her mother Grace (Nia Long, You People) is jetting off to Colombia with her new boyfriend Kevin (Ken Leung, Old). That sensation remains true even though Missing's viewers have likely never had their mum disappear in another country, and their life forever turned upside down as a result. We've all experienced the mechanics behind what writer/directors Will Merrick and Nick Johnson (who make their feature debut in both roles after editing Searching) are depicting in our own ways, with only the vast power of the internet able to help.

As an opening video set 12 years earlier explains, plus folders of medical info and farewells over a move from Texas to California, June is far from thrilled about Grace and Kevin's getaway due to its timing. She isn't fussed about her mum's rules for while they're away and repetitive reminders to empty her voice messages, either, but they'll be gone over the weekend of Father's Day, a difficult occasion given that June's father James (Tim Griffin, True Detective) passed away when she was a kid. To fill her time home alone, she makes sure that she's not really home alone, throwing parties she's not supposed to, avoiding tipping off her mum's lawyer pal Heather (Amy Landecker, Your Honor) — who's on check-up duties — and hanging out with her bestie Veena (Megan Suri, Never Have I Ever). But when June heads to Los Angeles airport to collect Grace and Kevin upon their return, her situation gets worse. She waits. She holds up a playful sign. She films the whole thing as well. But no one shows. 

Five years have passed since Searching became one of the best screenlife movies yet while making stellar use of John Cho (Cowboy Bebop) as a dad desperate to find his absent daughter. With that flick's writer/director Aneesh Chaganty and co-scribe Sev Ohanian getting a story credit, Missing flips the setup, having a kid looking as far and wide as technology currently allows for a parent instead. With some assistance from FBI Agent Park (Daniel Henney, Criminal Minds), but not enough — plus on-the-ground sleuthing by Cartagena local Javi (Joaquim de Almeida, Warrior Nun), thanks to an outsourcing service — June gets investigating, and also increasingly frantic about what's happened, why, where Grace might be and how to get her home. The film also gets pacier than Searching, reflecting not just half a decade's worth of tech advancements, but a teenager's innate, always-on comfort with the online landscape as a digital native.

June doesn't just hop from app to app, program to program, chat to chat and call to call quickly — and, conveniently for the film, keep her webcam running in-between so viewers see the stress expand across her face as she does so. As she scours and worries, worries and sours, she's as creative as she is determined with her detective skills. Indeed, Missing doubles as both stalker 101 and a cybersecurity warning. If you're already concerned about the surveillance-heavy times that we live in, expect your Black Mirror-style anxieties to only expand while watching. Missing is so relatable in what it's showing, rather than the tale it's using all those computer windows to show, that it's also a double-edged sword: we've all been June, inseparable from our MacBooks and the like; can our online lives be so easily picked through, as Grace does to Kevin as her suspicions heighten, as well?

As Searching did, Missing has its audience playing gumshoe along with its characters. As Unfriended and Profile did — all four movies share Russian Kazakh filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov as a producer, and he also directed Profile — it keeps everyone on high alert via a tense, propulsive and immersive affair. Viewing screenlife flicks, which also includes the unconnected Host and We're All Going to the World's Fair (and the less-convincing Spree, and downright grating Dash Cam), means constantly seeking clues as to where the next twist, revelation or crucial detail will spring from. They're an involving experience, especially when there are people to find and crimes to solve, and Missing is as on-edge, nail-biting and as attention-demanding as they come. Amid the sea of clips, conversations and text on-screen — and some wild leaps in logic — the nerves and vigilance here aren't June's alone.

Missing knows how folks watching will engage, even if it obviously isn't interactive in the way that film-meets-game Isklander — screenlife IRL, basically — is. It knows that it exists in a world obsessed with true-crime, smartly commenting on the pervasive and persistent fascination with other's misdeeds — and overtly linking back to Searching in the process — while asking how much anyone can ever truly know their nearest and dearest. That's another relatable source of the thriller's distress. It's where Reid proves devastatingly effective, compellingly shifting from a teen annoyed at her mum's overprotectiveness to the point of virtually ignoring her, to a concerned daughter willing to do whatever it takes, to questioning everything that she's ever been told. Long also plays her panicky matriarch part with potency, but the riveting Missing is right on target at grounding its nerves and thrills alike in all that can be uncovered, endured and experienced with your fingers on a keyboard and your eyes staring at your chosen rectangle.

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