BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — Will Merrick and Nicholas D. Johnson – the writers/directors of the new thriller “Missing” – have cleverly tapped into the current fascination with true crime tales told through podcasts and the continuing obsession with social media.
The result is a feature film that is shown through a laptop as it has been put together with images of computer screens, video captured through a variety of sources and lots of typing.
June (Storm Reid) is a grumbling teenager who hates that her mother, Grace (Nia Long), is so overprotective of her. If they occasionally didn’t talk on the phone, the pair would have little or no contact with each other.
The first sign of freedom for June comes when her mother decides to go on vacation to Columbia with her new boyfriend, Kevin (Ken Leung). June is not a big fan of the beau because she continues to carry the pain of the death of her father when she was young. But, June takes the separation as a way to party hard.
June’s jubilation turns to terror when Grace and Kevin don’t return home from the vacation. She begins pressuring officials in Columbia for answers but they move too slowly for her. She finally hires a local man to track down clues to what has happened.
The more June digs into the disappearance, the more she learns about Kevin and her mother. All she can do is continue her cyber sleuthing to get any answers.
By standard feature film making rules, “Missing” should not work. The most dominating backdrop is a computer screen and the characters interact through shaky Facetime calls. What Merrick and Johnson got right was creating a story that unfolds like a podcast. It breaks down into perfect chapters from the disappearance to the search to the final reveal.
They were hampered in the storytelling by the limited number of characters who can be brought into such a compact world. Even with that restriction, their final solution is smart and never cheats the audience.
They get there through a few plot elements that are forced, especially the connection made between June and Javi (Joaquim de Almeida), the person she hires in Columbia to help with the investigation. June’s immediate trust in Javi doesn’t fit with the fear and confusion she is feeling at the moment, especially because they have only met via the computer.
Javi’s story about his strained relationship with his son is more of a distraction than a support to the story. It is the one part of the film that seems to be the most offline.
Using the cyber world is not a new idea. Films such as the 2018 release “Searching” dove deep into the use of computer screens and phone footage to tell the story. For the record, the “Missing” writers and directors were both editors on that production.
Other films that have used a similar approach include “Unfriended,” “Disconnect,” “Ratter,” “Keep Watching” and “Host.” Even a movie like “The Blair Witch Project” showed how the traditional designs of making movies could be replaced by a more rebellious approach in this Internet world.
It all comes down to the story.
Merrick and Johnson bring what they learned with “Searching” to find the right rhythms for their film. Just as there is the constant demand for stimulation by those obsessed with the online world, “Missing” is a steady flow of keystrokes and changing images.
It is a familiar vehicle for telling the story but the saving grace is the way enough clues are sprinkled along the way to feed on the same way podcast mania has become so prominent. It is surprising how much tension can be created when all of the action unfolds in the cyber world. Even June’s missteps through her Internet searches build suspense.
Overall, “Missing” is interesting enough in design and story that it should make people look up from their phones for the one hour and 51 minute running time. “Missing” opened in theaters Jan. 20.
Cast: Nia Long, Storm Reid, Joaquim de Almeida, Ken Leung, Amy Landecker.
Directors: Will Merrick, Nicholas D. Johnson
Rated: PG-13 for violence, language, teen drinking
Running time: 111 minutes.