A Slick Mystery That Takes Place Entirely on Screens
Early in Missing, a teenager named June (played by Storm Reid) gets a FaceTime call from her mother, Grace (Nia Long). Grace is about to leave June home alone for several days and wants her daughter to jot down some reminders. Instead of transcribing her mother’s advice, however, June key-smashes to give the impression that she’s diligently taking notes, eventually spelling out her annoyance: “omg omg stfuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuu.”
All of this plays out on June’s monitor, the camera flitting around her cluttered desktop and following her cursor’s every move. Missing, which hits theaters this week,is set entirely on screens–computers, cellphones, smartwatches, security cameras, and so on. As a filmmaking tool, the gimmick works best when the story involves a ton of online action, such as characters Googling queries, sending messages, and watching videos. As a result, most films in this vein tend to be mysteries that unfold via digital clues. The best of these, 2018’s Searching, follows a father digging into his daughter’s social-media archives to track her down after she disappears.
Missing comes from the same creative team and operates as a stand-alone sequel. It tells a similar story: When Grace vanishes during her trip abroad, June starts investigating on the internet. She scours livestreams of areas where Grace went. She pores over Grace’s boyfriend’s Facebook. She guesses passwords to unlock Grace’s chat history on a dating app. In the process, she discovers how little she knew about her mother, and the thrill of watching the film comes from trying to keep up with the twists.
Like Searching, the movie examines how our online selves differ from our real-world identity, as well as how technology can create distance between parents and their children. Unlike Searching, however, the digital format doesn’t feel quite as justified: Grace’s disappearance is far bigger in scope–a global hunt involving the FBI and leading to several deaths. June’s continued use of her laptop at home thus comes off as a tad baffling, if not misguided.
The result is a film that is slickly made but buggy in execution, like a premature software update. Despite following the perspective of a young Gen Z user, Missing rarely tries to imagine what an 18-year-old’s screen might reveal besides TikTok videos being watched, Instagram stories being uploaded, and alarms being snoozed. The plot tries to sustain the screen-only stunt at all costs, leading to unintentionally funny developments: At one point, June’s friend, who lost his smartwatch at her home, texts her an image of an ad–an ad!–for it so she knows what to look for, as if a teenager today wouldn’t know what a smartwatch looks like. At times, the film comes close to observing the insidiousness of online sleuthing and true-crime culture–a montage plays of TikTokers discussing “evidence” around Grace’s case, and June watches scenes of a Netflix series that dramatizes the plot of Searching–but such moments are played for laughs.
Still, the tech-focused perspective remains effective at conveying a character’s emotional state. As June descends into panic, she haphazardly copies and pastes phone numbers and clues into Stickies notes that blanket her screen. When she’s granted access to her mom’s dating-app profile, her mouse lingers for a beat before she looks at the chat history, as if she’s bracing herself for the cringe to come. Even the smallest choices, such as June wavering over which emoji she’ll use to react to a message, feel pivotal.
Yet, in that regard, Missing becomes a missed opportunity. The film is visually inventive, adding flashback scenes that take place on a 2008 desktop as well as screens belonging to other characters, which means the format is clearly versatile enough to do more than tell the story of an investigation. As I was typing this review, my internet cut out briefly, making me wonder what June would have done had she not been able to reach so many sources in so many ways. Screen-set films have explored, again and again, the horrors that come with the internet’s limitless size, but they haven’t probed the pitfalls of hyper-connectivity. There’s something terrifying about how much June records, and how much has already been recorded, of her life. If Missing is any indication, maybe it’s time to reboot the whole system.