MISSING uses its novel framing for an effective thriller [3/5]

photo of review of Missing film
The below script is for the above video


Hello Kings and Kweens. This is a review for Missing. Missing is a screenlife thriller film directed by Will Merrick and Nick Johnson. This is a standalone sequel to 2018’s Searching – which was written and produced by Merrick and Johnson but directed by Aneesh Chaganty. I thought this movie was fine. If you haven’t seen a screenlife film before this is as good as a place as any to enter the genre.

Two things I want to talk about with this movie. I want to talk about the Implementation of technology into the story and I want to talk about the human story at the center of the drama.

Screenshot from Missing film
This is a screenlife movie so it takes place entirely within a computer screen


If you’ve been watching my videos for a while you’ll know I reviewed Searching when it came out in 2018. That video isn’t even up on the internet anymore, but in my review I called that movie one of the biggest surprises in my film watching career. I really loved Searching, I’d consider it one of the best thrillers ever but a sequel to it seemed like a tall order for two key reasons.

The first and most obvious thing you’ll notice when you watch either of these movies is they are what’s known as a “screenlife.” This is the accepted term for movies taking place entirely on a computer screen. Your first interaction with this genre may have been the movies VHS or Unfriended. Truly I think most people’s experience with screenlife is it’s a trend they don’t engage with directly but feel confident ridiculing anyway.

My hot take is screenlife is a legitimate storytelling mechanic, but it is undeniable it can feel like a gimmick that can quickly overstay its welcome. It’s sort of like movies that take place in a single room or location. This restraint can activate a lot of creativity and make a compelling story. We’ve seen that in movies like The Breakfast Club, Buried, or Room.

Making a sequel to a screenlife sort of feels like if they made a 12 Angry Men 2 and it’s 12 more angry men in a new court case. That hypothetical sequel would lose all the novelty and feel trite. That’s certainly a challenge for Missing in winning over its audience.

Screenshot from Missing film
The depiction of technology is one of the strengths of the story

The other challenge is Searching wasn’t just a good screenlife gimmick it is a legitimately great movie. It transcends its gimmick and really understands the human element of a thriller story. There’s no better proof of this then checking out the director’s follow-up Run – which I named my second favorite movie of 2020.

Run is another thriller but it’s not a screenlife. It follows a disabled young girl who is heavily reliant on her mother to function, but becomes increasingly disillusioned by her mother’s caretaking and tries to take her life into her own hands. Like SearchingRun is an incredible thriller, but if you can’t tell from its premise there is a strong human element that makes the story work. This is something that’s often forgotten in the thriller genre and it’s part of what blew me away about Searching.

Missing has a lot of top-level similarities to Searching but I think the best of what made the original worthy of a sequel is missing.

Many of June’s solutions are believable internet sleuthing


Missing follows the story of June Allen. She is the only daughter of Grace Allen and we begin the story with what appears to be June reminiscing about her now deceased father. June is now an adult and her mother Grace is dating a new guy, but June feels disconnected from her mother and her boyfriend in the way any teenager might if they were in that situation.

Early in the movie, Grace and her boyfriend go on a trip. June is supposed to pick up her mother from the airport on her return, but something goes wrong. June shows up at the airport, the plane arrives, the passengers disembark, but there’s no Grace. June files a missing persons complaint but has difficulty getting updates internationally – even with the assistance of the FBI – so she becomes an internet sleuth and tries to find out what happened to her mother on her own.


The best thing about Missing is it is a newly released screenlife films which means its implementation of technology is more believable than any other film in recent memory. I have an ongoing complaint about how filmmaking seems completely disconnected with reality these days. I mentioned this in reviews of movies like Kimi and M3gan. It is a crime to our culture that only a handful of movies in the past 3 years acknowledge that a pandemic happened or how people use social media instead of calling people.

In fact, I would love for someone at Hollywood to acknowledge no one calls anyone anymore. If they could adapt all their phone conversations to Discord messages and reactions, that would be more reflective of life in the modern day. You might not think these detail matter, but they do because they make the story more accurately represent your reality – which is the whole point of stories.

The implementation of technology is also a benefit to the story because it results in a number of routine “aha!” moments like any good mystery should. I’m not someone who likes to outsmart a movie by guessing what a character should do next, but I think the movie invites that type of thinking and it does that to share the fun with the audience. Rather than positioning the viewer as someone “above” the film’s internal logic, the story wants you to put yourself in June’s situation and figure things out with her.

Reliably, this film has its characters pursue sensible solutions to modern internet problems which is very different from most movies that gin-up arbitrary roadblocks for convenient dramatics. I thought the internet detective work was believable and fun which made watching the mystery unfold compelling.

Screenshot from Missing film
The story features a lot of contemporary elements from ordinary life such as the presence of gig workers and service staff


The greatest failure is its inability to ground the thriller twists and turns to genuine humanity. This is where I’m going to start drawing a lot of comparisons to Searching. Searching is about a father looking for his estranged daughter. Missing has the same dynamic but it’s flipped. The mother is estranged from her daughter, but the daughter is the main character who looks for her mother. These sound similar but are actually radically different.

The first major difference is when you flip the dynamic the drama for the main character is far less relatable. Many parents experience their children creating distance in their relationship. When that happens, there is a relatable sense of helplessness. No matter what the parent does to strengthen the bond, it usually results in further estrangement. Creating a thriller where the main character’s worst fears are actualized through their child disappearing is an excellent execution of genre conventions.

The estrangement this parent has been unable to resolve is now actively putting the person they care about the most in danger. Each time we see the father learn the truth about his daughter’s life, it furthers our empathy for that character. We can see how his failure to foster a positive family environment devastates him. This is something parents can relate to even if they haven’t had their child go missing. Maybe they just didn’t call you back for a few days or something more minor. The feeling is the same.

Screenshot from Missing film
One major challenge for the film is providing plausible reasons for June to not know details about her mother’s life

Missing’s variant of the daughter regretting her coldness to her parent is a far less common experience and is therefore less relatable. Sure, there are examples of children saying something mean to their parents and then they realize they may not have had a chance to say sorry – but that’s totally different than what’s happening in this movie. The humanity you’re meant to empathize with at the center of this story is more abstract for most audience members so its drama is less effective.

The second major difference is when the dynamic is flipped the function of subverting the audience’s expectations feels ridiculous. As I mentioned a moment ago, a father who is estranged has a plausible reason for not knowing the truth about his daughter. His daughter doesn’t want him in her life so she tells lies, hides the truth, and keeps secrets. This all makes sense. There is a single point of failure here. The relationship has failed so any information derived from that relationship is unreliable.

This dynamic of the daughter being cold to her mother means there is no good reason for the mother to be deceitful to her daughter. This movie has many deceits and secrets, but they are all beyond the realm of believability for a normal family. It does not take long for the story to feel like a Lifetime original movie where it’s effectively a conspiracy of evil men and enabling toxic women. That is an inescapable weakness at the center of its premise. If the dynamic was different then the movie would be different, but you can’t unring that bell once you decide to flip the dynamic of the main two characters. This is also the major concern I had about a sequel to Searching and this movie acts out that exact problem.

Closing Thoughts

Missing is still an exciting movie that’s fun to watch. If you’ve never seen a screenlife movie before, this is a fine place to start. If you’re cynical about the genre’s value, then this movie may make it more palatable for you. Personally, I would prefer people use this release to watch Searching. Even if you’ve seen Missing I think the original holds up better. I would also recommend Chaganty’s second project Run.

I’d give Missing a 3 out of 5. It’s okay. I like any modern movie that feels like it was made in the modern day. I think it uses its genre conventions effectively. There is at least one better alternative to this movie, but if you’re looking for something casual to keep you engaged, this does that just fine.


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