It’s exciting when movies take ambitious swings, but sometimes the final product is too messy to be even admired. At the beginning of Sophie Kargman’s feature debut “Susie Searches” (based on her 2020 short of the same name), the story appears to be moving in a predictable direction, although it’s buoyed by its bright tone, perky star (Kiersey Clemons, playing Susie), and an air of mystery with a promisingly strong emotional undercurrent. The film’s opening sequence is a montage that ages Susie from small child to college student by the way of her mom reading to her and, later in life, Susie reading to her mom, as it becomes increasingly apparent that her mother is ill. The mystery novel she’d read with her mom helped spark Susie’s inquisitiveness, and in tone present day she hosts a true crime podcast called Susie Searches, which gives her an outlet to investigate cold cases. But just about everyone has a podcast nowadays, and Susie struggles to stand out in the crowd. The occasional comment she receives on a podcast episode is just spam, and as she scrolls her Twitter feed, which greets her with few followers and even fewer likes and replies, the feeling that she is just shouting into the void of the World Wide Web is crushing.
But when Susie sees an opportunity, she seizes it. After (Alex Wolff), a local college student who amassed a massive online following through his mediation videos and “choose kindness” messaging, goes missing without a trace, Susie—with all the pluck of a modern day Nancy Drew—picks up the search where the police are floundering (she also interns at the station, which gives her an in). These first 20 minutes or so of the film exhibit a smart sense of humor that examines Gen-Z, the pressures of social media, and the quest for viral fame, all while drumming up intrigue surrounding the mystery of the missing boy.
Then the twist happens, and “Susie Searches” is never able to reconcile it with the character we saw in the first part of the film, her eagerness and braces-adorned smile making her appear younger than she actually is. The remainder of the movie vacillates uneasily between black and light comedy, while Susie’s motivations, and the film’s messaging as a whole, become more and more muddled. Is she still hungry for fame? Does she just have a crush? Does she genuinely care about anyone else? Her mother is sort of dropped from the narrative after a certain point as well. The final product is much wilder and more morbid than the set-up made it out to be, but twists aren’t effective if they don’t make any sort of logical sense within the story, and the more turns “Susie Searches” takes, the messier it becomes.
Clemons and Wolff are wonderful to watch together though, and they possess a warm and easy-going rapport that makes me want to see them work together again. Wolff particularly does good work peeling back the layers to a character who initially seemed vapid and turning him into someone remarkably easy to emphasize with. There isn’t a false note in Clemons’ interpretation of a sweet, over-eager, and awkward young woman. Jim Gaffigan and Rachel Sennott both have memorable turns as the local police chief (smarter than his initial bumbling lets on to) and Susie’s shallow mean girl coworker at the burger joint she works at. And Kargman clearly has a fresh and exciting voice that’s evident in what does work on screen: there is tension where there should be tension, as her camera closely follows her actors through potentially dangerous scenarios, there are some quirky stylistic choices that are appropriate for a teen movie, and the cinematography and editing (by Conor Murphy and Christine Park) are effective as the film bounces around different hotspots in a small college town and between morbid and sweet moments. At the end of the day, it’s likely William Day Frank’s uneven screenplay that is most at fault for the film’s failure to fit its many pieces together. For a movie that portends to have a lot to say about isolation, loss, and ambition, it ultimately ends up saying very little.
Runtime: 105 minutes.