When the computer-screen thriller “Searching” came out in 2018, starring John Cho as a widower dad navigating an unfamiliar online world to find his vanished daughter, you could sense a gimmick had matured from the novelty silliness of the 2014 movie that kicked it all off, the chatroom freakout “Unfriended.”
“Searching” director–co-writer Aneesh Chaganty understood that the freshness of a screens-only visual language would quickly wear out its welcome without a well-plotted script and solid performances to anchor it. (Cho even landed a Spirit Awards nomination for his finely turned portrayal.)
Now the genre’s so-far gold standard has a worthy sequel, which is more stand-alone follow-up than continuation. You don’t need to have seen “Searching” to enjoy “Missing” — and enjoyable it is, serpentine, sly and nail-biting in equal measures — but the earlier movie’s fanbase will certainly recognize what online-savvy Los Angeles high-schooler June (Storm Reid) is watching on her laptop in the beginning: the climax of “Searching” done up as dramatic re-enactment for a true-crime series called “Unfiction.”
So same world, just different story. Or more accurately, same story, with the searcher role reversed. June’s mom Grace (Nia Long) is a single parent, nervous about leaving her daughter alone while she goes on a trip to Cartagena, Colombia, with her new boyfriend Kevin (Ken Leung, “Old”). And June, ready for time away from her annoyingly attentive guardian, makes the most of her unsupervised time by hosting a secret rager.
But in the scenario written by directors Will Merrick and Nick Johnson — who served as editors on “Searching” — it’s the teenager playing digital detective when mom effectively disappears in Colombia, and diplomatic inaction pushes June to do her own cyber-sleuthing from thousands of miles away to find out what happened to Grace and Kevin.
Of course, a screen-dependent teenager is faster at realizing the informational bounty the web offers, which revs up “Missing” to blazing speeds as June geolocates, guesses passwords, and identity-forages as if she were applying for a job uncovering Russian war crimes for Bellingcat. The last film’s Facebook and YouTube rabbit holes — so 2018! — have been replaced here by Google streetviews, mobile tracking, dating site dives, and Taskrabbit outsourcing in the character of Joaquim de Almeida’s friendly Colombian local Javier.
And yet a handful of this movie’s nobody-is-who-they-seem mysteries are still believably just out of June’s reach until they can be revealed for both maximum suspense and, occasionally, heightened ridiculousness (especially its last twist and nutty climax). But who cares about the Harlan Coben–like preposterousness of the story, really, when the genre feels like it’s getting a juicy system update thanks to the world of livestreams, smartwatches, Mac sticky notes, VPNs and Ring cams?
Merrick and Johnson, with the help of their editors Arielle Zakowski and Austin Keeling, are wonderfully all-in with 21st century screenlife as a temporal, multi-dimensional playground of exposition, perspective and tension. And isn’t that what the possibilities of cinema felt like to the silent-era directors? A hovering cursor is the new suspenseful cutaway. A deceptively framed browser window is the new widening-out iris shot. A remorseful teenager staring at her missing mother’s affectionate “Love you” IM, and ruing her own blasé thumbs-up “liked” response instead of a reciprocal “loved” heart, even counts as a meaningful flashback.
It’s all great fun, even if there’s no central performance as riveting as Cho’s in “Searching.” Then again, acting in movies like this is an admittedly uphill battle, one that Reid is better at when not having to rely on the occasionally tinny dialogue. Long, Leung and de Almeida, meanwhile, fill the tapestry of intrigue efficiently and appealingly.
Is “Missing” a glorified ad for the apps, sites and tech giants name-checked throughout? Of course, even in the jokes at Netflix’s and TikTok’s expense, and with irony, too, considering how the movie’s deployment of digital tools speaks as much to this era’s perils of privacy and loss of control as it does these products’ more helpful transparencies and conveniences. But since we can’t ignore the impact of online in our lives, “Missing” opts to revel in all the hazard and hope our ubiquitous technology offers the mother-daughter tale, the detective story and the escape-room situation. The result is a gratifyingly fully-charged, no-buffering hotspot of a thriller.
“Missing” opens in US theaters Jan. 20 via Screen Gems.