It’s hard not to judge “Missing” according to one’s own aptitude — much less appetite — for watching the world via devices, but that would be unfair to the sleight of hand pulled off by directors Nick Johnson and Will Merrick. Making their directorial debuts, the pair chronicle the labyrinthine story of a teenager’s search for her missing mother from what’s probably the least visually interesting perspective possible, very nearly making it cinematic in the process. Still, an improbable escalation of events and more than a few niggling questions about who’s doing what and how renders this screenlife thriller in dimensions that unfortunately resonate better on an intimate, handheld scale than the big screen.
Storm Reid plays June Allen, a restless 18-year-old eager for her mother Grace (Nia Long) to leave on a romantic trip to Colombia with Kevin (Ken Leung), Grace’s new boyfriend. June and Grace have been estranged since the death of June’s father, James (Tim Griffin), from cancer. In home-movie footage from June’s childhood, James evidences an ease with his daughter that his wife compensates for by being overprotective, a pattern that continues right up to the moment Grace leaves U.S. airspace. But when June dutifully arrives at the airport days later to pick up Grace and Kevin from their trip, they mysteriously aren’t on board their return flight.
June files a missing persons report for Grace, but not before contacting their hotel, whose desk clerk further inflames worry by informing her that they left behind all of their luggage. Enlisting her classmate Veena (Megan Suri), as well as Javi (Joaquim de Almeida), a courier she hires to help her pursue leads in Colombia, June either deduces or hacks the passwords to her mother’s online accounts — and from there, Kevin’s — hoping for any kind of trail that leads to Grace’s whereabouts. June eventually discovers some intriguing conversations between Grace and Kevin from early in their courtship that she shares with the authorities, but their combined efforts conjure more questions than answers, leaving the teen increasingly unmoored as she faces the likely possibility of losing her only remaining parent.
Although June uses her technological literacy only for good, “Missing,” like its “cinematic universe” predecessor “Searching,” provides a sobering reminder of just how much of our daily lives is traceable through some sort of digital footprint. Not only can she follow the path of her mother’s phone up to the moment of her disappearance, but she can also watch Grace in Colombia via cameras (both live-streamed and recorded) placed in tourist destinations and trace her spending via her bank account. Whether or not a disgruntled but otherwise ordinary Gen-Zer is actually capable of navigating all of these apps and programs with the ease June possesses is up for debate. A few years ago, there almost certainly would have been a nerdy classmate written into the story to provide the necessary expertise. It’s tough to say whether that’s progress or laziness on the filmmakers’ part.
The challenge with a story about screens is figuring out how to make them interesting — to make them like more than cages the characters must break out of — and Johnson and Merrick do a serviceable if inconsistent job of balancing June’s emotional journey and the cluttered desktop of her amateur investigation. As irritating (and possibly believable) as it might be for a teenager to speak to virtually everyone around them while staring distantly into a phone or monitor, audiences become invested when she’s on screen, and if Reid almost comically underplays a few pivotal scenes along the way, seeing her becomes preferable to the too-many-open-tabs exposition that comes and goes at the filmmakers’ convenience, or desperation.
Unlike such earlier screenlife films as “Unfriended” whose conceit is effectively that the story is comprised of unfiltered “found” footage, there’s no reason that the film must be confined to a phone or computer monitor, especially since composer Julian Scherle provides a buzzing, fairly constant score to ratchet up the intensity, and Johnson and Merrick freely cut to external angles when it suits their needs. But in adhering to the notion that as much of the action as possible should be delivered via June’s devices, the filmmaking pair undercuts key payoffs by photographing them from dispassionate wide angles and then zooming in like they’re trying to make the best of grainy surveillance footage.
Even if it delivers no particular insights about them, the film distantly touches on the contemporary phenomenon of amateur sleuthing, the impact of several decades of “Dateline”-type shows on these would-be investigators (the one here, carried over from “Searching,” is called “Unfiction”) and the proliferation of callous, half-baked theories about ripped-from-the-headlines crimes on social media platforms. “Missing” ultimately proves so beholden to its central technological premise that audiences who take it at face value may become distracted by questioning how they’re seeing certain information, and from whose perspective, instead of focusing on a sequence of events that’s increasingly preposterous but nevertheless should prove gripping — at least as long as those who watch it don’t do as much digging as June does.