Like, Follow, and Find My Mom — Missing
Back in 2018, I named Aneesh Chaganty’s debut, Searching, as one of my favorite films of the year. John Cho’s lived-in, tense performance as a man looking for his lost daughter through the voyeuristic framing device of using only his computer screen was compelling on a number of levels, and was the first social media-based movie to be any good in my eyes.
Just over four years later, we have a standalone sequel in the form of Missing, which I named as my “Redemption Reel” in this month’s edition of TFINYW, mostly because it’s January, and the pickings be slim, so anything that shows promise gets a preliminary recommendation from me. This time, Chaganty only serves as a producer and story writer (along with Sev Ohanian), with the screenplay and directing duties handed over to Will Merrick and Nick Johnson, who served as editors on Searching.
As I expected, this follow-up doesn’t reach the highs of its predecessor. I mean, it’s being released in January. It would be amazing if it did. But that doesn’t mean this is a bad film. In fact, I thoroughly enjoyed it. There are a few shortfalls here and there, but overall, passing the reins did not lead to that much of a diminishing return, and if you’re looking for some good popcorn thrills, you should give this a try.
The major difference in the framing of this film is that the roles are reversed from the last one, albeit with an entirely new cast. Whereas before it was a father looking for his daughter, this time it’s the daughter looking for her parent. In this case, our desperate lead is June, played by Storm Reid (who oddly enough starred in one of the worst movies of 2018, A Wrinkle in Time). An early home movie shows Junebug the toddler playing with her parents Grace and James (Nia Long and Tim Griffin), before a montage of video edits, solemn messages from well-wishers, and collections of photographs bring us to the present. Now 18, June is eager for the widowed Grace to leave for a Colombian vacation with her boyfriend Kevin (Ken Leung) so she can have the house to herself and party with her best friend Veena (Megan Suri). Like most teenagers, June is a bit detached from Grace, rolling her eyes at pet names and boundaries, all while her mother struggles with current technology (in something of a departure, this is a movie put out by Sony with no noticeable Sony product placement; instead it’s all Apple, which is its own brand of gross, but hey, baby steps). The real annoyance for June is that Grace is taking this trip on Father’s Day weekend, and to add insult to injury, she’s being proxy babysat by Grace’s friend and lawyer Heather (Amy Landecker).
After a weekend of young adult debauchery (limited for a PG-13 rating of course) and blowing through most of the “emergency” money left to her, June goes to LAX to pick up Grace and Kevin, only they don’t show up. Contacting the hotel in Cartagena where they were staying, June learns that the couple simply left one day and didn’t come back, their luggage still in their room. Hoping that security footage and closed circuit cameras can help locate them, June enlists the aid of FBI agent Elijah Park (Daniel Henney) and a freelance, app-based handyman in Colombia named Javier (Joaquim de Almeida). One of the giddy joys of the film is watching the cash in June’s bank account dwindle hour by hour as she pays Javier for his service, a really clever way to introduce a ticking clock into the proceedings.
Before long, things start to take a sinister turn. Questions arise about Kevin’s past as well as Grace’s, as dead ends and red herrings pile up. Meanwhile, June’s own safety becomes an issue, as her unique case invites a media swarm with no requisite security, and she’s no closer to finding her mom, assuming she even wants to be found in the first place.
There are some pretty decent thrills and a mostly satisfying mystery unfolding over the course of the nearly two-hour runtime. Reid makes the most of her screen time, both for the story and in the meta sense of owning her spotlight, giving a solid performance as a resourceful teen who still feels the pressure of the moment. Merrick and Johnson also do a fairly good job in playing with audience expectations, as they assume — rightly in most cases, I’d guess — that the people in the theatre saw the previous film, and therefore undercut the plot beats they recycle from the last movie as a way to show their own awareness and reassure the viewer that they’re not just telling the same story, even if they’re using the same computerized conceit.
The two minor dings for me concern the overall presentation of the story. The first is a matter of personal preference, in that one of the things I really enjoyed about Searching was in how cerebral and moody it could be. You can see the world collapsing around John Cho’s character as each path he takes leads nowhere, and the suspense is in wondering how much time he has left to find his daughter, and what avenues he’s yet to attempt. Here the tension is derived more from an element of personal danger to June as well as to Grace (and Kevin to a decidedly lesser extent). It’s not just that Grace went missing, it’s how she went missing, who’s responsible, and whether or not those malicious forces will advance on June.
To some, that might enhance the experience, as it adds a layer of stakes the last movie didn’t necessarily have. But for me, it was an unnecessary shift in priorities. As a typical American teenager in the 21st century, June is a bit obnoxious and self-centered. Her feelings of betrayal for her mom going on vacation during Father’s Day instead of paying some sort of respects to her dead dad are instantly outweighed by her desire to get underage blitzed. So to create a paranoia where June’s life might be in danger is to make the movie more about her than the search for Grace. To an extent, Searching was also about Cho’s character, but it was more him taking personal stock and wondering how much he truly knew his own child after she disappeared. Whatever emotions he’s going through, they’re still filtered through her and his need to get her back. June’s journey, on the other hand, starts out with her looking for Grace, but then comes back to being mostly about her rather than her relationship with Grace, apart from the obvious statement of not wanting to become an orphan.
Because of this, a lot of the major turns of the plot are in service to making June feel more and more afraid and alone. A couple of jump scares and most of the twists are meant to set up a sense of creeping menace instead of a genuine concern for where the investigation and search might lead next. I’m not saying it doesn’t work, just that it didn’t work for me as well as I’d have liked.
The second point is more of a structural and editing quibble. In the last movie, the use of social media and computer apps felt organic and germane to the proceedings, as Cho basically had to sit at home and wait for news from Debra Messing and anyone else he could talk to, all while doing his own research. This time it’s a lot less smooth and natural, as there are several moments where the screen-based presentation come off as shoehorned in for the sake of the underlying concept. For example, June sees a TikTok video of someone pranking a friend at the airport with a fake welcoming sign, so she decides to emulate the gag. This necessitates her going to the airport, setting her bag on the floor, and propping her phone up inside it so that she can be recorded from several feet away (and amazingly no one knocks it over, steals the bag, or alerts security to unattended luggage). That’s how we get a scene of her waiting for Grace and Kevin at the airport in a way that remains confined to the screens, which is just way too contrived. Similarly, June has a doorbell camera that goes off at inopportune times as a sort of homage to When a Stranger Calls, one of her friends misplaces his smartwatch at the house party and chimes in multiple times to ask about it in a way that all but screams, “THIS WILL BE IMPORTANT TO THE RESOLUTION!” and Veena’s continued presence hanging out in the background chatting to June while she looks at her webcam rather than her friend is just a tad off-putting. Like I said, there are some novel ways the tech gets used in the film, like the dwindling money, but there are just as many instances where it feels like a commercial for Apple with a movie plot built around it.
But as I said, these aren’t huge gripes. They just prevent this movie from exceeding the already high bar set by the original. As it is, it’s more than passable, which if you’re grading on a curve for January makes it damn near stellar. The core concept of the story still works, the performances are memorable, and there are a few truly unexpected moments of both suspense and humor. Lightning didn’t necessarily strike twice in the same place, but it’s within a reasonable margin of error. Just don’t press your luck on a third one.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? How else can social media be used to enhance filmmaking? How close are we to the machines just putting out their own movies? Let me know!
Originally published at http://actuallypaid.com on January 27, 2023.