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When her mother goes 'Missing,' a Gen-Z teen takes up a tense search on screens

June (Storm Reid) is on the case when her mother disappears during a vacation with her boyfriend.
Temma Hankin
Sony Pictures
June (Storm Reid) is on the case when her mother disappears during a vacation with her boyfriend.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that repetition often destroys elegance.

Compare the elegance of Speed (if this bus slows down, it will blow up) with the clumsy Speed 2: Cruise Control (this cruise ship is going to very slowly run into a beach). The elegance of The Fast and the Furious (street racing is fun!) with Ludacris and Tyrese Gibson ending up in space. The elegance of Die Hard (one cop tries to rescue a building full of hostages) with ... well, any other Die Hard movie.

The 2014 horror film Unfriended, an early entry in the "screenlife" category in which everything plays out on computer screens, is formally elegant — simple, economical and effective. Mostly, you are just watching a group video call, with periodic visits to other places like Facebook or sketchy, unpleasantly believable forums where links seem like they could lead anywhere. And that video call, it turns out, is haunted, and will gradually knock off everybody on it. That's the story; that's the format. Screenlife has ties not just to "found-footage" movies (also formally elegant: The Blair Witch Project), but to epistolary novels, too. In all these forms, the traditional telling of a story is replaced by the opportunity for the viewer/reader to examine the evidence that the story happened.

One of the producers of Unfriended was Timur Bekmambetov, who was also a producer of not only its follow-up Unfriended: Dark Web, but also the 2018 screenlife thriller Searching. Searching was directed by Aneesh Chaganty and stars John Cho as a father stumbling through the digital life of his teenage daughter trying to solve the mystery of her disappearance. And now, Bekmambetov is a producer of Missing, which is a flashier, snazzier, and — yes — less formally elegant project written and directed by Nick Johnson and Will Merrick, who were editors on Searching.

Missing stars Storm Reid as June, a bright and restless young woman whose mother, Grace (Nia Long), vanishes during a vacation to Colombia with her boyfriend, Kevin (Ken Leung). In an inversion of Searching's tense portrayal of a father who feels helpless and adrift in the complexities of his daughter's highly connected life, Missing makes June a Gen-Z'er who knows how to get around adults who reuse their passwords, don't secure their devices, and thus leave themselves open to all manner of snooping. This is her environment; she is at home here on her screens.

It's a good thing June feels at ease with her tech, because 10 years after Unfriended, her online life has grown far more complicated than that haunted video call. She has a Ring doorbell, she has voice-activated everything, she can chat with people around the world who are not in front of their computers, she inhabits a world full of live webcams, and home security systems have boomed. Her social media life isn't about a Facebook page; it's about bits and bobs scattered all over. She's also not John Cho's David from Searching, who slowly explores one platform at a time, painstakingly dragging individual snippets of information out of the dark. June hops from window to window like a plate-spinner; following her "screenlife" investigation of her mother's disappearance is dizzying. It is her expectation that information she needs can be found somewhere, from her laptop. The editing has been accelerated and complicated by self-consciously inventive visual transitions, and regrettably, a lot of the simplicity has been lost.

There is something bracingly confident, in retrospect, about Unfriended, which plays out the boring acts of typing and scrolling in real time, the frustrations of trying over and over to click on things that cannot be clicked on. (Because it's got a virus and that virus is ... a ghost.) In classic horror style, what is unseen in that film is often more frightening than what is seen, and what is seen is limited by the format. While it's a thriller rather than a horror film, Searching, too, moves deliberately, making limited and effective use of hidden cameras, streaming, and other avenues that allow a found-footage style (more similar to Paranormal Activity or The Blair Witch Project) to take over from a pure screenlife style.

Much of Missing, however, particularly late in its story, is more a found-footage film than a screenlife film. It doesn't rely on messages, chats, forums, or that dance of typing and scrolling — it shows you a regular scene, but from the perspective of a camera that exists inside the story.

Missing is not a bad film; it's a good film. It's smart, Reid is terrific, the thriller elements are gripping, the twists are surprising, and some of the moments in which June outsmarts people who are trying to cut her off from information she needs are highly satisfying. At the same time, it feels, in a way that's a bit deflating, like a regression to the mean, where the repetition of this format across films (with perhaps greater and greater box-office expectations) makes them less and less formally interesting.

June's active, inventive exploration of online information is also, perhaps, part of the evolution of a concept that travels from the horror realm to the thriller realm, with the shift in intensity that suggests. Maybe if a thriller is about what frightens you, a horror film is about what frightens you most — that's an oversimplification and certainly not the genre definition, but it captures something about the difference between the adrenaline of thrillers and the visceral wallop of horror.

What frightens many of us most is not peril itself, but the growing sense of helplessness and hopelessness that horror does so well. What June has at her disposal is a multiplicity of tools, of new avenues to explore. Missing is a study of the ways in which the internet is full of a hundred ways to solve a problem; it's a story about bending these tools to your will. Unfriended was about the anonymous message, the blank page, the blinking cursor, the grayed-out option, the spinning ball, the baffling intrusion — online life when it doesn't work.

But it's hard not to wonder what a thriller would look like that had more faith in this format, that didn't feel so beholden to found-footage films. It's another truth universally acknowledged that limitations often spur creativity; Missing without the benefit of quite so many accessible cameras for June to peek through would be an adventure all its own.

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Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.