George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four warnings feel a long distant memory in the face of Missing, a stand-alone sequel to Aneesh Chaganty’s buzz hit Searching. Long gone are fears of the Big Brother. These days, there’s not so much data Gen Z won’t sacrifice for free Wi-Fi and a welcome discount. Where Orwell forebode, Missing delights. The whole world is but a click away, if that in the era of Face ID. As with Searching, the thrills of Missing unfold in the ‘screenlife’ format – which is to say, entirely through computer desktops and web cams. It’s an approach not so far removed from the noughties’ fondness for found footage and similarly dependent on a certain degree of stretched credulity.
Only a rock solid central performances can ground such a gimmick, which this can’t help but be, for all its absorbing brilliance. In Searching, John Cho proved a revelation. His role is irreverently recalled here in true crime reconstruction cameo. In Missing, A Wrinkle in Time’s Storm Reid proves a more than adept successor. Boxed front and centre, Reid delivers commanding honesty, finding emotional truth in the reality of a crisis that occasionally strays from our real world feasibility. A story conceived by Chaganty and first film co-writer Sev Ohanian more or less directly mirrors the impetus of Searching. Where Cho’s David sought his lost daughter, Reid’s June is the daughter whose mother has disappeared. It’s a pleasing counterbalance.
Nia Long plays Grace Allen, June’s missing mother and sole parent, following the death of her father (Tim Griffin) a decade prior. Theirs is a terse relationship. On June’s phone, Grace is iconised in the form of a potty mouthed emoji. For her part, Grace complains that June never answers the phone and boasts a chockablock voicemail inbox. When Grace leaves June for a jaunt away to Columbia with new man Kevin (Ken Leung), this tension finds itself very much in need of resolution.
It’s June’s job to collect the couple from the airport on a return that never comes. Burst is June’s dream of TikTok friendly reunion reel, opened up is an increasingly disturbing mystery, With the FBI unable to help her, June takes it upon herself to investigate the disappearance. She first hacks into Kevin’s accounts – ‘does Kevin give you a one-password-for-everything type of vibe?’ – before a progression to stalking publicly available CCTV and hiring a dirt cheap Colombian gig worker, who just happens to bear the weight of his own familial baggage.
The film is an editor’s dream – all showy cross-cutting and layer-laden blending – and pitch perfect starting point for debutant directors Will Merrick and Nick Johnson, who edited Searching. Here, the reins are handed to Austin Keeling and Arielle Zakowski, who prove no less nimble fingered. There’s fierce intelligence in the construct, sometimes to a fault. It’s all too easy to find the mind drawn, in distraction, from the plotted flow in the face of editorial flair. Not that re-boarding should challenge. There’s clinical effectiveness in the charting of the thrill ridden map the film follows. The twists, often genuinely shocking as they are, land exactly when expected. There’s no lull.
Where the format finds its smarts is the mining of potent contemporary trends. A true crime framing device is smart. Likewise, the replacement of Cho’s middle-aged dad with the younger, tech savvier Reid works wonders for a target audience who will one day discover the film on Netflix and devour it through a screen very much akin to June’s. How meta such a future will be for the film. Perhaps some precursor to a smartphone screenlife alternative, even? When viewed in such tight framing, Missing will no doubt ascend to vitality. It grips.