In 2018, Aneesh Chaganty presented a unique twist on an otherwise run-of-the-mill thriller with his directorial debut, “Searching.” A father’s (played by John Cho) desperate quest to find his missing daughter is depicted entirely through his computer screen: video calls, text messages, web searches, and phone calls. I remember enjoying “Searching” quite a bit when it was first released; according to my review from the time, I apparently liked it even more than I remember. “Missing,” a standalone sequel set in the same universe as “Searching” (the events of that film are briefly highlighted in the opening scene in an episode of a fiction true crime show called “Unfiction”) and apparently also Chagantry’s subsequent 2020 thriller “Run,” is just as dynamic and engaging despite retreading on an overly similar plot, but the flaws in its technique felt much more glaring this go around.
“Missing” marks the directorial debut of Nick Johnson and Will Merrick, who served as editors on Chagantry’s previous two movies, featuring a screenplay by Johnson and Merrick based on a story from Chagantry and Sev Ohanian. A parent-child relationship is again the heart of the story, but this time it’s flipped: rather than a father searching for his teenage daughter, a teenage daughter (June, played by Storm Reid) is searching for her mother Grace (Nia Long), who disappeared on a vacation in Colombia with her new boyfriend Kevin (Ken Leung). Again, the loss of the other parent (in this case, June’s father, who passed away due to a brain tumor) is the primary cause of the disconnect between parent and child, with June resenting her caring mother and the new man in her life.
That so much of June and Grace’s relationship can be conveyed not even through the actors’ performances, but in the way they interact with technology, is a testament to how effective the creative format of these movies can be when executed effectively. Take, for instance, a handful of things that occur in the film’s opening moments: Grace trimming a home movie of June and her father to omit a traumatizing scene so she can save it for her daughter, or June “liking” Grace’s “Love you” text as opposed to responding. The weight of their struggle to connect is heavy, and we really feel it, granting the movie an emotional layer that helps the audience automatically become invested in the coming mystery. It helps that “Missing” is populated with other fascinating characters who either help or hinder June in her search, from her best friend Veena (Megan Suri) and Grace’s friend and lawyer Heather (Amy Landecker) to Agent Park (Daniel Henney), the authority on the ground in Colombia, to the MVP of the film, Javi (Joaquim de Almeida), the scooter-riding assistant June hires online to help find clues around Colombia as the police are still navigating all the red tape, who ends up serving as a sounding board for a lot of June’s frustrations.
“Missing” is also quite funny beyond the suspense (like any self-respecting teenager, June takes advantage of having the house to herself to throw booze-infused parties every night, searching “how to throw a rager on a budget”), and the filmmakers certainly populate the screen with a lot of easter eggs, clues, and inside jokes for the audience to look at, while effectively directing focus to specific things as necessary (even if the amount of windows June had open simultaneously on her computer personally stressed me out a bit; girl, clean up your desktop). But “Missing” also has a frustrating tendency to spell out so much for the audience, with June narrating many of her actions and the dramatic spikes in the score serving as a tell. It loses credulity as it progresses, the third act, much like “Searching,” really transforming into something bonkers (although all those twists are, admittedly, a big part of the fun). The issue stems less from the actual narrative (although that is not paced near as tightly as it ought to be) and more from the technique. The story may all unfold via screens, but Johnson and Merrick have a tendency to cut and zoom in and out of the video footage on those screens (particularly during the climax, which is primarily viewed through security camera footage) in a way that feels a bit like they’re cheating their own conceit.
Perhaps the most intriguing way to think about “Missing” and “Searching” is how ten, twenty years from now (maybe even less than that, considering how quickly technology progresses and trends shift) they will serve as time capsules of the current internet culture, not just the apps and sites we use but how and what we use them for. We see comments appear on the live stream of a video of a dramatic event unfolding in real time, and we see how posts on social media like Twitter and Instagram can trigger unhappy emotions. But as it stands viewing it in the present day, “Missing”—while it may not feel as fresh as its predecessor—is an entertaining thrill ride assembled just cleverly enough to mask any head-scratching turns, lingering questions, or flaws in its execution.
“Missing” is now playing in theaters.” Runtime: 111 minutes. Rated PG-13.