Missing hits theaters on Jan. 20, 2023.
Nicholas D. Johnson and Will Merrick’s Missing rides the success of Searching into another Screenlife adaptation about family members seemingly gone without any trace. Johnson and Merrick served as directors of virtual photography and editors on Aneesh Chaganty’s Searching, now handling both writing and directing duties after Chaganty and co-writer Sev Ohanian hatched a sibling story idea. It’s less a sequel and more a filmmaking reunion — Missing inverts Searching by focusing on a computer-literate 18-year-old whose mother vanishes. Searching stumbles through technological sleuthing (by character design), where Missing puts all the power in someone too comfortable behind a screen. A bold approach, but there’s less suspenseful browser crawling and iMessaging this time around — the “screen” emanates less “life.”
Storm Reid plays our protagonist in a chair, June — or as overprotective mama Grace Allen (Nia Long) calls her, Junebug. The mystery begins when June arrives to pick up Grace and hopeful stepfather Kevin (Ken Leung) at LAX after their romantic Colombian vacation. June is confused when neither Grace nor Kevin deplanes. We’re immediately reminded of Searching to the tune of unanswered texts, dial tones with no answer, and a web of lies like Agatha Christie meets Tumblr. Reid isn’t afraid of carrying Missing as June connects with US Embassy agents (Daniel Henney as Agent Park), South American Taskrabbit workers (Joaquim de Almeida as Javi), and besties who appear on her front door security camera feed (Megan Suri as Veena).
Management of screen-recorded elements seems less functional and more cinematic this time. The camera frequently zooms on focal points or disregards the reality of watching Missing like we’re using a computer. Cinematographer Steven Holleran soars through Google Maps street views like we’re cruising highways or cycles through window montages without real-time restraints — which feels odd. Searching more strictly respects Screenlife immersion, where Missing cares less about rigid subgenre rules, unlike films like Unfriended or The Den. Maybe that’s a green light for Screenlife avoiders, but as a viewer who remains enamored by Searching and Timur Bekmambetov’s Profile, Missing feels harder to accept as fluid Screenlife navigation. Perhaps a “me” problem, but existent nonetheless.
Missing advances like a more theatrical experience versus Searching. Reid’s panic is palpable as June realizes her only surviving parent, Grace, has become embroiled in a constantly evolving disappearance. Johnson and Merrick help Missing differentiate from Searching because of the generational differences between June and John Cho’s David Kim — as simple as June typing abbreviated clues via her sticky notes app versus David’s organized Excel spreadsheet. There’s a heftier collection of inorganic moments that require the utmost luck — guessing passwords, constant FaceTime laptop usage to see Reid’s person, sparking emotional connections with overseas $8-an-hour freelancers — but the messier Grace’s situation becomes, the more we can’t help but engage curiosity.
Johnson and Merrick feel less in control as directors, but that’s almost an endearing quality. As Missing spirals into a tangle of true crime special commentaries and pen pal relationship building, June’s performance finds new gears. It’s ultimately less successful as Screenlife authenticity but more aggressive as a possibly criminal, wildly secretive investigation that brushes against horror borderlines — and that’s as much as you need to know. Missing relies on its unknown elements staying unknown, which are worth enough of the digital roller coaster to experience with fresh eyes.