The latest instalment in the “screenlife” genre (where events take place entirely on screens) is a follow-up to 2018’s Searching, where a man used the internet to track down his teenage daughter. This time it’s 18-year-old June (Storm Reid) looking for her missing mother (Nia Long), with nothing but her wits, corporate surveillance and the entirety of human knowledge to help her.
Where the genre’s “found footage” precursor had to contrive its characters constantly being filmed, that is now a reality, enabling entire lives to play out across webcams and video calls. No wonder then that the editors on Searching (Will Merrick and Nick Johnson) literally have the tools to direct this one. And the format has only grown in relevance, since the pandemic accelerated the adoption of Zoom calls and the True Crime craze turned every curtain twitcher into amateur sleuths.
That is not to say the film is at all realistic, given the plot excesses required to make it engaging to watch someone on WhatsApp for two hours. And considering June’s first instinct when left home alone is to Google “how to throw a rager”, her chances of finding a missing person seem as remote as her methods. It is impressive then to see how much tension can be loaded into search engine sleuthing and social media stalking, even if the pace of technological change has already dated its 2021 production. Google Translate? What, were the Club Penguin servers down?
What Missing lacks in cinematic scope it makes up for in characterisation shortcuts, not having to rely on clumsy exposition but clumsy personal data protection. Every character’s backstories and secrets are literally at our fingertips, and the next wild plot twist is just a keystroke away. This notion that there is nowhere to hide online (except for Myspace and amateur film reviews) is spun into an advert for Google, shown to save lives through its mass accumulation of personal data. The glaring downsides of anyone being able to track anyone else’s movements are ignored, and obviously no mention is made of the myriad fines Google pays for leaking users’ location data from visits to abortion clinics and domestic violence shelters.
Like so many thrillers it works best when exploiting its limitations instead of stretching them, making smart use of its screen-bound Rear Windows activity, losing its way when going to a physical location that has to be smothered in cameras (one of them is simply covering “woods”) in order to stick to the rules the movie has set itself. But despite going loopy with twists, Missing is an entertaining cyber-thriller that has fun with its form (there’s even a flashback to the internet in 2008) and gives Taskrabbit more screentime than Twitter. Truly a sign of the times.