“Missing” isn’t exactly a sequel to “Searching,” but rather another installment in what feels like a burgeoning Searching Cinematic Universe. It features a brief reference to the mystery within the 2018 hit film during a breathless, early montage, part of an amalgamation of sights and sounds that puts us on edge from the very start.
While “Searching” was about a father looking for his daughter entirely within the confines of screens – laptops, cell phones, surveillance footage – “Missing” finds a daughter looking for her mother through the same narrative structure. Catching lightning in a bottle twice is nearly impossible, though, and “Missing” lacks the novelty of its thrillingly clever predecessor. “Searching” may have sounded like a gimmick, but it worked because it was relatable within its unnerving premise. As John Cho’s character desperately seeks clues to his daughter’s whereabouts by investigating her online activities, we tell ourselves in the audience that we’d have the same presence of mind to follow those logical steps. Cho was tremendous in the role, which featured his face in close up nearly the entire time. There was nowhere to hide, and he revealed every glimmer of fear and hope with great nuance.
The new film from the writing/directing duo of Nick Johnson and Will Merrick, based on a story by the original “Searching” team of Aneesh Chaganty and Sev Ohanian, takes the exact same approach. It pulls off the impressive narrative highwire act but includes a couple twists too many, eventually depleting it of much of the realism that makes it so gripping for so long. But “Missing” is also zippier in a lot of ways, because the character who’s front and center is an 18-year-old high school senior who’s interacted with this kind of technology her whole life, rather than a middle-aged dad who’s figuring it out as he goes along.
Storm Reid’s June is a master multitasker, a wizard of the World Wide Web. It’s like watching Lydia Tár conduct the Berlin Philharmonic, only with FaceTime and Venmo and Spotify. Even before her widowed mom, Grace (a lovely Nia Long), takes off on a Colombian vacation with her new boyfriend, Kevin (Ken Leung), we learn so much about the way June spends her days simply by watching her skip between tabs and tap away at her keyboard. She frequently leaves on the camera on her computer, allowing us a peek inside her bedroom and the way she interacts with people IRL. Reid has a likeable, engaging screen presence, and she establishes quickly that June is both smart and a smart-ass.
But once Grace and Kevin fail to show up at LAX as scheduled – which we also see because June has set up her cell phone to capture the moment she greets them at baggage claim – her instincts and years of experience online really kick into gear. We feel her increasing terror as she struggles to communicate with the front desk clerk at a Cartagena hotel, who only speaks Spanish. But she’s such a resourceful problem solver, she realizes she can navigate this city remotely with Google maps and the help of a Taskrabbit-style errand runner for hire named Javi (Joaquim de Almeida, who brings a welcome warmth and humor to this suspenseful scenario).
With each new password she cracks, website she visits and email she reads, June raises more questions than she answers, and “Missing” makes us question these characters again and again. Guessing what’s really going on here is a lot of fun, but as Grace’s disappearance becomes national news, it’s clear Johnson and Merrick have something to say about the ghoulish nature of glomming onto tragedy. One major way “Missing” has evolved from “Searching” is the way it features podcasters and TikTokers analyzing every little detail of the case, forming ill-founded opinions and spreading conspiracy theories for their own fame and gain. It’s at once amusing and dismaying. The directors also effectively employ Ring security video, which wasn’t as prevalent when the first film came out, as a source of tension; we see just enough to know there’s more we can’t see.
But if the delightfully nutty “M3GAN” was a cautionary tale about the perils of relying too heavily on technology, “Missing” ends up being a celebration of its possibilities. It’s also a good reminder that we should all be using passwords that don’t include our childhood dogs’ names and kids’ birthdays.
Now playing in theaters.