Building off the strength of its predecessor, the new screenlife mystery fumbles its conclusion.
On paper, the screenlife genre seems like a tricky prospect. The restriction of only being able to communicate with information that appears on the digital screen challenges filmmakers to offer a compelling, entertaining narrative without resorting to cheats. Put more bluntly, a film that uses non-traditional narrative techniques, like found footage or single-take films, has an immediately higher bar to clear than one that uses time-tested cinematic language. The question always lingers: If this film didn’t use the screenlife format, would it still stand on its own merits? Is the form the only interesting part, or is there something more underneath the surface?
The high watermark for screenlife thus far is 2018’s Searching, a breakout from that year’s Sundance festival. Starring John Cho, the film told a fairly straightforward mystery of a father desperately searching for his daughter. It’s clever use of different technology, grounded by a powerfully locked-in performance from Cho, allowed the material to be elevated above its cinematic exercise. It was thus not surprising, but certainly exciting, that a spiritual successor was soon to come.
After COVID-related delays, we now have Missing, which at first blush could be easily described as Searching in reverse. Rather than a parent trying to discover where their child has gone, we now follow the investigation of June Allen (Storm Reid) trying to track down her mother after she and her boyfriend disappeared on a trip to Colombia. As with Searching, June finds out rather quickly that the image she had of her mother was far from complete.
The filmmakers for Missing—namely the debut directing duo of Nick Johnson and Will Merrick working off a story conceived by Searching director Aneesh Chaganty—are well aware of how similarities with its predecessor will immediately stand out to viewers. The core relationship is between a seemingly withdrawn teen and their single parent. There is a police presence that seems to be both helpful and a hinderance. Digging through social media and e-mail accounts reveals deeper and more disturbing secrets. But as the story unravels, Missing starts to play both with and against those expectations. It is clear that Missing knows the tricks that viewers are anticipating, and attempts to play against them just as the ground seems to be taking shape.
Perhaps the biggest addition to the format is the inclusion of a lovable sidekick. At one point, needing to collect information on the ground, June hires a Task Rabbit-esque laborer in Colombia named Javi (Joaquim de Almeida) to run errands and collect information. Javi and June’s relationship, both their banter and eventual confrontations, offers an emotional crux that the film desperately needs. When the majority of your acting is two actors communicating in WhatsApp calls, the chemistry needs to be warm, and luckily, Reid and de Almeida’s warmth comes across as genuine. June’s father is gone, Javi’s son is estranged, and their ways of playing off of each other suggest a deeper need for that relationship. It is the story beat that works strongest throughout the film.
The larger issues Missing runs into mostly rear their head in the film’s final act. As the stakes and dangers of June’s investigation start to increase, the means and specifics of how Missing is able to communicate its story become increasingly difficult. The film never quite cheats against the rules it establishes, but the means by which it communicates its final dramatic moments edge into enough of a traditional filmmaking language that it feels like it loses its momentum and the fun of its screenlife restriction. The excitement of Searching was how creatively it told its story; by contrast, Missing finds a few big tricks that it leans into heavily for its resolution, but that are less thrilling.
Still, the central mystery is interesting enough, even if somewhat derivative of its predecessor. As it unravels, the excitement of each new reveal layered onto the last provides momentum. The film, and the genre as the whole, taps into a sort of self-identified amateur detective in all of us. It truly is just the final significant reveal and its fallout that the movie settles into a less interesting drama, feeling more like the resolution of a crime-of-the-week procedural. Thus the final resolution deflates a lot of the goodwill that the film had generated.
But with trick films like this, those sorts of things matter in the end. You have to land the plane for the whole process to feel worth the journey, and in the case of Missing, that unevenness creates a messy final impression and overshadows much of the engrossing sleuthing that proceeds it.
Missing is in theaters now.