Searching, Aneesh Chaganty's 2018 film, proved that a movie taken entirely from a mix of computer and cell phone screens can work. The clever angle of that film was the way technology was key to its protagonist in his frantic search to find his missing daughter. The computer screens and cell phone interactions were at the heart of the search. Missing, which also plays out entirely on screens, is made by Nick Johnson and Will Merrick who edited Searching.
While Searching committed to a self-contained perspective of the father, Missing can't seem to stick to one perspective. This simple difference is what begins to unravel Missing even as it finds clever ways to expand on this concept. 18-year-old June (Storm Reid) uses her laptop to track down her mother Grace (Nia Long) after she does not return from a vacation to Columbia with her boyfriend Kevin (Ken Leung). The film breaks perspective from June enough to create confusion as to whose screen we are watching now. While this allows the film to expand beyond things June could know or discover, it creates a lack of rules for the audience to engage with. In a mystery like this, confusion for too long can kill any sense of intrigue and interest.
Missing has a lot going for it before it breaks this rule, however. For the first hour or so, the real-time urgency of the plot propels us into a fascinating missing-persons tale. June waiting at the airport, trying to prank her mother only to be left there waiting has a major impact. The growing dread of someone not returning home is relatable and palpable here. Reid sells the growing worry June has as she tries to contact her mother and fails. However, as the film moves towards its reveal, things get outlandish and messy. Missing forgets the strengths of this real-time gimmick, having to employ jumps in time, other perspectives, and even a flashback to fill in the story. As it does these things, all momentum and suspense flee the film.
When it is at its best, Missing has many clever uses of technology, even exposing just how easy it is to track someone these days. There are a few jokes that land well, one around a password has a particularly clever sting to it. When it is at its worst, it is painting Columbia as a sinister place where tourists are routinely kidnapped. There are attempts at commentary about technology and privacy but most of these don't come to a satisfying incorporation with the final act. Too many red herrings and twists occur as well, making the viewer check out of playing along and trying to figure out the central mystery.
While Missing isn't a complete misfire, it often fails to justify the gimmicky approach that worked so well for Searching. It does have some very clever ideas at times and Storm Reid is good enough to carry the film. However, it plays by ill-defined rules and eventually becomes so twisty that it feels more like a parody of Searching than its own film.