"Missing" excels as a smart, engrossing "screenlife" thriller

Missing (2023)

Unfolding almost entirely on a cell phone or laptop screen with multiple open tabs, “Missing” is not only part of the so-called “screenlife” sub-genre but a cog in a potentially budding cinematic universe. Think of it as a spiritual successor to 2018’s “Searching,” a shrewdly interactive, masterfully mounted thriller led by John Cho as a father searching for his missing daughter. That film’s editors, Will Merrick and Nick Johnson, make their writing-directing debut here with another missing-person procedural mystery in the same storytelling format, and “Missing” is another engrossing nerve-shredder that would impress Hitchcock. 

18-year-old June Allen (Storm Reid) could not be bothered. Her widowed mother, Grace (Nia Long), just wants to connect with June, even if she never uses Siri correctly. On Father’s Day weekend—a touchy time since the loss of June's father—Grace takes off on a vacation with her new boyfriend Kevin (Ken Leung) to Cartagena, Colombia. Grace and Kevin take an Uber to LAX, but June is in charge of picking them up at the airport upon their return. After a whirlwind weekend of raging, June does show up to the airport, but neither Grace nor Kevin made the flight home. And why isn’t Mom answering her texts and calls? As Grace’s lawyer and best friend Heather (Amy Landecker) helps June submit an abroad missing person report, the FBI investigates in Colombia and suspects that Grace may have been kidnapped. Is Kevin a con man? Is Mom involved in something bigger? All of these questions will slowly be answered, but it’s up to June to play detective and use her resources. 

Opening on the Netflix true-crime fictionalization of the events in “Searching” (a character-based motif that cleverly gets called back by the end), “Missing” still holds up on its own terms and feels even more up-to-date almost five years later. Transcending its gimmick, the film further opens up the capabilities of how a story can unfold as if living online. It instantly pulls you in and makes you an armchair detective, while always effectively being steps ahead of us. As exceptionally played by Storm Reid, June is quick on her feet and so resourceful but still very much a teen. She accesses vital information through text messages, FaceTime, a Ring camera outside her front door, and tourist spot live cameras in Cartagena. She also smartly enlists a Taskrabbit agent, Colombian man Javier (an endearing Joaquim de Almeida), to perform some legwork. With every click and every password she cracks, we follow June in her own investigation to find her mother, and whenever June makes a new discovery, Reid makes the wheels turning in her mind readily apparent to the viewer. 

New plot developments may strain real-world logic a bit with more twists than a pretzel factory to keep audiences guessing, but who cares? By that time, this is already compact, riveting, tense-as-hell stuff, moving so swiftly that any preposterous turn is rarely questioned in the moment. It’s no wonder the film is so tightly paced and edited, considering co-directors Will Merrick and Nick Johnson cut together “Searching.” The film also never cheats with its visual conceit; even when things switch from June’s laptop to camera monitors, there’s never an omniscient source of footage just coming out of nowhere. It’s only January, but “Missing” is a smart, savvily assembled corkscrew-plotted thriller that keeps us in the palm of its hand. 

Grade: A -

Sony Pictures Releasing is releasing “Missing” (111 min.) in theaters on January 20, 2023.