Missing Review: A Messier, Familiar, But Thrilling Sequel To Searching

When Aneesh Chaganty and Sev Ohanian's "Searching" debuted in 2018, the form-breaking and narratively inventive picture taking place entirely within the digital world served notice of a new and very different kind of movie. Although maybe not as unprecedented a phenomenon as when audiences first saw that train headed right for them (allegedly), "Searching" sent shockwaves through the industry and proved that "Millennial-minded" movies could be so much more than a pejorative. The novelty of the experience, combined with a razor-sharp script and a sizzling lead performance by John Cho, immediately set itself apart from the rest of its peers — especially those (think "Unfriended" or "Cam") that similarly grappled with the idea of putting the "modern" in "modern art" through a freshly 21st-century lens.

Five years later, Chaganty and Ohanian have stepped back from the director's chair, ceding the reins over to "Searching" editors and first-time directors Nick Johnson and Will Merrick in an attempt to get lightning to strike twice with the anthology sequel, "Missing." If the end result is a little more familiar than some may have hoped — in addition to the flashy editing and clever workarounds of the self-restrictive gimmick, the semi-sequel firmly solidifies a template of sorts for this nascent franchise that now repeatedly involves suspicious characters close to home, a red herring or two, and a broken family with a hole at its center — then at least the slight twists on formula and the still-enthralling pleasures of seeing talented artists turn something so inherently uncinematic into a nonstop rollercoaster ride help stave off the encroaching threat of conventionality.

Just when you thought "Searching" had wrung everything it possibly could out of this concept, "Missing" shows just how much potential remains. What viewers are left with is a bold, twisting, and audacious thriller that will leave you breathless ... though maybe a bit underwhelmed by a nagging sense of déjà vu, too.

If it ain't broke...

Like "Searching" before it, "Missing" begins with a brief prologue that sets the stakes for our new batch of characters. Using home videos and the looming specter of a family tragedy regarding her father James (Tim Griffin), the script concisely (though maybe not convincingly) establishes the fraught dynamics between our new 18-year-old lead June (a very capable Storm Reid) and her overbearing mother Grace (Nia Long) that reverberate throughout the rest of the story. On the cusp of adulthood but suffocating under such an overprotective gaze, a chance for freedom comes when her mother books a weeklong getaway to Colombia with her plain and unassuming boyfriend Kevin (Ken Leung). But when the time comes for their return home to Los Angeles and both fail to show up for their airport pickup, June kicks off a frenzied search for her missing mom with only the faintest digital trail of breadcrumbs to follow.

This is the first and most obvious of the film's subversions of "Searching," flipping the premise of the first film on its head and immediately livening up the proceedings by focusing on the internet-savvy Gen Z character instead of the largely clueless parent. (Consider me blown away that, in the year 2023, a running gag about a clueless mom constantly misusing the Siri function actually lands as hilariously as intended.) By following a smart, resourceful protagonist who depends on her ingrained, internet-honed instincts just as much as she does luck, this one simple decision helps make the portions that stretch our suspension of disbelief to the breaking point a little easier to swallow.

The wheels threaten to fall off the ride as the plot twists begin to pile up one on top of the other, but Johnson and Merrick keep a steady pair of hands on the wheel by relying on what they learned on "Searching" and leaning heavily on what worked so well the first time around. Admittedly, perhaps in this one instance, it's understandable why coloring within the preestablished lines would be preferable to breaking the mold all over again.

A smart script with something to say

"Missing" lacks the raw emotional depth of the original (not for a lack of trying, mind you, though it's tough to outdo the first five minutes of "Searching" that left me in tears), but it somewhat makes up for it with an engaging plot that confidently ping-pongs between June's laptop and other devices on-hand in LA and a bevy of unexpected sources in Colombia — including a scene-stealing Joaquim de Almeida in a role that's simply too good to spoil here. In fact, if you've noticed that I've largely steered clear of plot details here, it's because it'd be a disservice to reveal the vast majority of the film's twists and turns. Rest assured, nothing is as it initially appears in "Missing." That sometimes comes to its detriment, but it's largely to the benefit of a genuinely entertaining, well-paced, and tense thrill ride with no shortage of setups and payoffs.

Yet, the best trick "Missing" has up its sleeve has nothing to do with sudden reveals or expectation-shattering developments.

It's the fact that, in a far cry from so many modern movies and shows that seem carefully modulated (at best) and algorithmically dictated (at worst) to go viral on social media with out-of-context screenshots, the inevitably online nature of "Missing" never once comes across as artificial or condescending. Though it can easily be enjoyed as a straightforward, pulpy, and surprisingly intense crime drama (albeit one that's much funnier than its predecessor), the running commentary that lambasts true-crime obsession, TikTok culture, and the internet at large rings true and feels much less cloying or out-of-touch than it might have in less capable hands. When the investigation expands and the search for June's mom and prospective stepdad goes viral, June herself tellingly becomes exasperated with the cynical online reaction — and even that of her helpful best friend Veena (a delightful but underused Megan Suri).

No punches are pulled in "Missing," especially when it comes to the inclusion of an amusingly tasteless, in-universe true-crime series called "Unfiction" that acts as one long recurring joke about the exploitative nature of the genre — and the platform, which in this case is unambiguously Netflix. Whatever else one may say about it, "Missing" is a rip-roaring crowd-pleaser of a film that needs to be experienced in theaters with a boisterous crowd. If its reach exceeds its own grasp at points, at least it's in service of an original, ambitious, and utterly distinct vision that could very well turn into the most unique original franchise this side of Rian Johnson's Benoit Blanc murder mysteries. These days, that can't help but feel like a breath of fresh air.

/Film Rating: 7 out of 10