Merrick & Johnson: Missing (2023)

One of my biggest cinematic disappointments of the last five years was that 2018’s Searching never eventuated into an entire screenlife genre, as was originally planned. Profile followed but it didn’t feel cut from quite the same cloth, and when the pandemic descended, it seemed the experiment might have been relegated to a 2010s oddity. It’s wonderful, then, to see that Missing is not only a worthy successor to Searching, but a compelling effort to cement the screenlife approach moving forward. For Missing hits many of the same beats as Searching, most obviously in its narrative focus on a missing person. This time around, it’s Grace, a middle-aged woman played by Nia Long, who takes a trip to Columbia with her new boyfriend Kevin, played by Ken Leung. She’s a little reluctant to leave her daughter June, played by Storm Reid, back in Los Angeles, since it will be the first Father’s Day they’ve spent apart since June’s father died several years before. Still, Grace decides to take the trip, and when she doesn’t return on her scheduled flight, June is forced to start investigating her disappearance.

Apart from that central premise, there are many clear overlaps with Searching here. There are echoes of the original score, and a few cameos from the original film for superfans, while key lines are also repeated: “Last night was fun.” There’s also the same low-key focus on racial diversity, in a nod to the world of social media, which tends to be less white than mainstream cinema. And, of course, the entire film plays out on social media devices, which bring the two films into the same shared universe. We learn that the events of Searching are well-known to June and her friends, thanks to a television series called “Unfiction” that dramatises recent cases. While this isn’t exactly a sequel to Searching, the original narrative is still a part of the true crime lore that June draws upon to contour her investigation into her mother’s case. Yet these continuities also make the variations more surprising – and it is this ability to balance expectation and novelty that makes Missing such a compelling case for the screenlife genre as a whole. For example, the plot is driven by the same uncanny sense of crossing social media boundaries, except that now it is a daughter examining her mother’s dating profile, rather than a father examining his daughter’s Facebook profile. The twist is also telegraphed in a remarkably similar way, although that doesn’t make it easier to predict in advance. Once again, the entire cinema audience audibly gasped when the final “twist image” revealed itself.

However, the most dramatic departure from Searching lies in the depiction of media itself. Missing is even more emphatically driven by intermediality, situating itself even deeper in the interstices and connective tissue between media. We see this in the plethora of apps and devices that didn’t appear in the first film (Spotify, TikTok, Smart Watch) as well as in the little observational details that feel more specific to the last five years of being digitally connected (the whole audience in my theatre laughed in sympathy when June was forced to fill out “all the squares containing a bus” to prove she wasn’t a robot). But there’s also a funkier movement between apps, and sense of being on every app simultaneously, as June, already prone to toggle between platforms at a rapid pace, responds to her mother’s disappearance with an even more frantic tempo, until they all blur into one single social medium. This is pointedly contrasted to a downtempo home video of her as a baby, along with her father, shot in 2003, which opens the film, like a distant prequel to the media ecology that it depicts.

In other words, Missing is much less tethered to the desktop computer than Searching, and indeed makes you realise how redundant desktop computers have become in the half decade since the original. There’s less correlation between the computer screen and the cinema screen, and less use of the desktop as an “establishing” shot that is capable of anchoring the action. While we do see desktop stuff, it tends to be condensed to phone-sized chunks, just as the occasional “wide” shots of desktops are cluttered with apps, windows and background detail, or else offset by hyperactively choppy editing. Only once do we see a stately establishing-shot of a desktop, but the directors denature it in the other direction, pulling back further and further until we realise that this desktop (June’s) is being mirrored and monitored by an unknown antagonist on their desktop device, with the aid of a StealthCam.

If Missing is less tethered to the desktop, then it is more attuned to the phone, as the poster design suggests. This creates another key difference from Searching; namely, that most of the investigation takes place remotely. Whereas David Kim, the protagonist of Searching, could collaborate in the investigation himself, June has to outsource the first part of it entirely, with the help of the Columbian equivalent of TaskRabbit, an app that allows you to hire people remotely for any and every job. The warmest connection in the film is between June and Javier, a Columbian man played by Joaquim de Almeida, who helps her track down her mother’s last movements, while opening up about his rocky relationship with his own son. When June isn’t interacting with Javier, she becomes obsessed with mapping, both how she can map the world with her phone, but also also how phones map us without our knowledge.

Yet the paradox of Missing is that it is both more globalised and more localised, more remote and more immediate, than Searching. The more that June sinks into this international search, the more confined she seems in her own house. This local-global nexus constellates, in the second act, around the revelation that Grace never made it to Columbia in the first place, but vanished somewhere along the eighteen-minute route between her front door and LAX. That continuum between local and global space now becomes the forensic object of the film, while Grace and June’s doorcam becomes the most privileged media device, and the point where both the escalating media frenzy and the climactic twist unfold. It requires a radical and perhaps fantasmatic act of media convergence to map this connective LA tissue, along with a more mobile and embodied approach to media itself, a final jettisoning of desktop life. The result is one extraordinary convergence tableau after another, from a Smart Watch exploration of Wilshire Boulevard, to a scene in which June calls Javier on WhatsApp to see if her can triangulate her location in California, to the finale, in which June jacks into a criminal’s wi-fi, and uses the StealthCam that has been watching her, to give Siri instructions from afar.

In these closing scenes, the directors both depart from Searching in ever more extravagant ways and acknowledge the screenlife genre’s indebtedness to it. Even as Missing starts to explore supernatural and grindhouse horror, and undercuts its own sentimentality more than Searching ever did, it concludes by planting itself firmly in the same shared universe. Rather than dwell too long on the emotional finale, the directors cut back to its “Unfiction” rendition, which will presumably become part of the folklore that animates future instalments in the screenlife genre, much as the “unfictional” version of Searching incentivises the action here – a wonderful promise for the future of this genre, which I have always wanted to see thrive.

About Billy Stevenson (864 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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