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‘Missing’ Is A Patchy But Perceptive Computer-Screen Thriller

This is #CineFile, where our critic Rahul Desai goes beyond the obvious takes, to dissect movies and shows that are in the news. Today: Missing.

‘Missing’ Is A Patchy But Perceptive Computer-Screen Thriller
A still from Missing

Last Updated: 12.08 PM, Feb 24, 2023


MISSING is the spiritual sequel to Searching, Aneesh Chaganty’s 2018 thriller that broke the mould of the ‘screenlife’ genre. Searching, a film that unfolded entirely on computer and smartphone screens, featured an Asian-American father tracking down his missing daughter through the omniscience of technology. Up until then, this pre-pandemic genre was a narrative gimmick to stage horror and supernatural stories. But Searching was the first to successfully frame a real-world conflict: A tech-savvy parent striving to locate his Gen-Z child. The allure is rooted in not just how the internet casts a web over life but also how modern communication – usually the number-one culprit behind generational discord – can sometimes bridge that distance. The father gets to ‘know’ his daughter only in his digital pursuit of her. Missing, co-written by Chaganty, reverses the trope: An African-American teenager in Los Angeles, June (Storm Reid), tries to find her mother, Grace (Nia Long), after she disappears on a Colombian vacation with her sketchy new boyfriend (Ken Leung).

June lives on her iPhone and Macbook screens, and as a mid-30s critic whose online stalking stops at Google Search, I found it both amusing and amazing how electronically an 18-year-old is wired to think today. She might not be capable of finding her bedroom door without mapping it, but she’s more than capable of uncovering a crime in a foreign country from her desk. The title works on two counts, because June is still haunted by the memories of her late father – she is ‘missing’ him, and resents her mom for moving on with her life. Much like its predecessor, the film opens with a lovely family montage that unfurls through files and videos on a hard disk. June watches a childhood clip of her father on loop, a poignant ode to how the act of grieving is often determined by the machinations of (random access) memory.

Her name evokes a month that splits a year into two, which is to say that June is torn between looking back (at the summers of her life) and moving forward (towards the uncertain winters). While she puts up an emotional Instagram post about her dad, she responds to her mom’s texts with monosyllables and ‘Like’ buttons. But when Grace doesn’t show up at LAX after her holiday, June springs into keypad action. What follows is the sort of fact-is-stranger-than-fiction tale that regularly ends up in Netflix’s true-crime library, a neat narrative quirk confirmed by June’s own binging habits. As expertly paced and cleverly conceived as it is, however, Missing isn’t half as smooth as Searching.

You can sense the storytelling straining to overcome the diminished novelty of the filmmaking device. June goes through a rollercoaster journey, of course, discovering dark secrets about her family over a few nights of browser-sleuthing. But the focus on visual form and fluidity is so absolute that it tests the credulity of a real-world setting. The LAPD, FBI and embassies get involved at some point – and the media goes to town about the popcorn mystery – yet it never really feels like they’re influencing the search. It never seems like life and hype exist beyond June’s house. The writing struggles to authenticate the case beyond the bubble of a mother-daughter story. There’s some external noise, but that’s all it remains.

Whatever June finds is then revealed by the detectives on news channels, implying that she’s the one doing all the work. The idea is that June has the inbred instincts to track down her loved one. But her navigational talents only prove that it’s a matter of time before Artificial Intelligence drives humans out of law enforcement. It becomes particularly jarring when June cracks her mother’s Gmail password two-thirds into the film. What exactly was the cyber-crime unit up to? There might not be another film if the next kid simply asks ChatGPT to “Find my mother”. Or maybe the third film will be about a disgruntled cop who beats Siri in a manhunt across the Wifi-averse Siberian wilderness.

This isn’t exactly a deal-breaker, but in 2023, it’s enough to infect our suspension of disbelief. There are a few more glitches in the cinematic software of the film, too. For instance, June’s decision to hire a Colombian Taskrabbit agent to secure information is a smart one, but their chemistry is too designed. The older man, Javier (Joaquim de Almeida), is convinced too easily, and June’s video calls to him suggest a platonic connection without really exploring it. Other peripheral characters pop in and out of the story in a way that lets June continue her quest as if it were a videogame version of Cluedo. The young actress, Storm Reid, is not convincing as a teenager whose face must double up as our screen. Much of the role is dotted with expressions of shock and brain-waves; “I have an idea!” is not an easy look on a dormant Facetime camera. The twist in the tale, too, is far-fetched, stretching the already-elastic realms of American true-crime culture.

That’s not to say Missing is a misfire. It’s pretty solid, as I mentioned earlier, because it contains the soul of a parent-child love story. I like that both the films so far are based on third-generation immigrants and ethnic minorities, a trend that spotlights the role of technology in the dysfunctionality of heritage. The pairs in both Searching and Missing have more at stake – they have more to lose – because of their adopted American-ness. It’s why their bond ultimately matters. The concept of parents who end up not understanding the kids they sacrifice so much for is a worthy one in this context. The revelations in Missing convey how far such adults can go to protect the psychological identities of their children. We choose to remember the good things and bury the traumas of our past, but stories like these reveal that the editing of memories is not limited to the human mind. It’s no coincidence that the central music theme of Missing resembles the one from Interstellar – a film about a father who misses his daughter, but also a film about a girl who believes that she’s her father’s daughter. Love is, after all, the one thing that transcends time, space – and weak password security.

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