Every so often, it’s fun to watch an inventive cinematic experiment. Even if the narrative elements don’t always gel, a young filmmaker with dynamic ideas can create something unique. Missing comes into theaters this week, bringing an age-old story in some less-than-conventional packaging. Is this movie the hip, techy drama it wants to be? Or is this more of the same watered-down January fare? Read on!
Missing follows June (Storm Reid). The teenager finds herself lost and confused when her mother (Nia Long) and her boyfriend (Ken Leung) disappear during a romantic Colombian vacation. Suddenly, the life June recognizes is nowhere to be found. People she thought she knew and seemingly indisputable facts are suddenly far from simple. Will she be able to crack this mystery from more than a continent away?
Missing is visually structured almost entirely through the characters’ screens. Whether it be June’s computer, a smartwatch, a doorbell camera or even security cameras, the audience is always looking through a screen. This film is fascinated with electronics and media. In the last two decades, our lives shifted drastically to revolve around our smart technology. Phones carry our lives, and computers even more so. We can’t live without them. A look into someone’s device provides a peek into their headspace.
Missing proves to be a surprisingly fun examination of some previously explored ideas. This film wants to be innovative. However, Open Windows presented an early version of this idea back in 2014. Even Modern Family gave a more refined take on this theme in their sixth season episode, “Connection Lost.”
Throughout the film, the audience is placed squarely into June’s head. We see what she sees. We’re quite literally sitting in her chair. In Missing, this deeply focused perspective ultimately proves limiting, and the script struggles to work within the limitations.
The film is a clear spin on “first person” cinema. While this stylistic presentation is less unconsciously alienating than other direct “first person” works like Lady in the Lake, Missing actively fights against the constraints of its visual presentation.
This doesn’t become particularly evident until deep into the second act. Before this point, the film easily works with its location and single-character perspective. However, the final twist in the narrative necessitates location changes and narrative time jumps. While these would prove no problem in a traditionally structured work, they’re jarring in Missing.
This contributes to a tonal shift into the third act, which hits a sour note in the grand scheme of the narrative. The less than two-hour movie is packed with twists and turns, which keep the story moving (much of it feels brisk and breezy) and make it challenging to predict where everything is going. When June seems to have an idea of what’s going on … “Oooh! What a twist!”
However, the movie hits a wall at the end of the second act. The film is forced to step beyond where the narrative is comfortable to bring things to a close. Suddenly, the story is forced to switch locations (a tough undertaking when your camera is essentially wired to the wall), and the script introduces elements outside June’s knowledge. Watch me do the good old spoiler avoidance dance here. I will keep this spoiler free.
As mentioned, before act three, the script stayed within the scope of June’s story. She dictates the narrative flow and the audience quite literally watches the action through her eyes. Suddenly, when the audience needs to discover plot points late in the story, which are unknown to June, everything comes to a halt for a jarring exposition dump. It stops the story cold. Had the film stepped back from its nuanced storytelling device, this final act wouldn’t feel so clumsy, overshadowing the challenging reality June finds herself facing.
That said, until that third act, I was sucked into this fun mystery. I enjoyed myself far more than I expected. The brunt of this success sits on Storm Reid’s shoulders. The young performer shines in what must have been a challengingly small shoot. She’s often alone with no one to play off who isn’t on a screen. As the star in this intimately scaled drama, she has no room for error. If her performance stumbles, so does the movie. However, she carries the film beautifully and easily as the glue holding everything together.
Few other performances are allowed an opportunity to shine through the deliberately structured narrative. Joaquim de Almeida is a rarity who comes dangerously close to stealing scenes as Javi, a Colombian gig worker who helps June in the country. Meanwhile, Tim Griffin casts an intriguing and terrifying shadow but doesn’t have enough screen time for his character to break through.
The same is true for Nia Long. Not only does the story revolve around Grace (Long), but her relationship with June is built as the thematic heart of the movie. Unfortunately, she ends up feeling more like a plot device. Granted, she is “missing” for a huge stretch of the story, and at some level, the mystery hangs on her shoulders. As the movie ends, though, the audience is supposed to care deeply about the relationship between these two women. Ultimately, they are all each other has. Unfortunately, there’s not enough between them to allow Grace to build her character. We see her through June’s eyes, and that’s sadly not enough to build affection for her on a human level.
All in all, Missing is a bit of popcorn-fueled fun to check out in theaters this month. Granted, there is a certain amount of style versus substance in the filmmakers’ desire to craft the techy visuals. It’s unfortunate the script is packed full of twists and turns that don’t gel with their overarching stylistic plan. This cinematic experiment isn’t needed. This gimmick has been done. That said, though, thanks to Storm Reid’s performance, this is 75 percent of a fun mystery movie that could be what young audiences are looking for coming out of awards season.
Missing premieres in theaters around the country on January 20, 2023.
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This review was originally published on 1/20/23.