Hacking, not shoe-leather, solves thriller ‘Missing’
June Allen’s mother has vanished during a romantic vacation with her boyfriend to Colombia when “Missing” starts gaining steam. The FBI are supposedly on it, with one special agent telling June: “The best thing you can do is wait by the phone.” Wait by the phone? You don’t know June Allen, buddy.
Audiences get a ringside seat to 18-year-old June’s quick mind and even quicker fingers as the teenager uses all the modern tools at her disposal to solve the mystery in this superbly constructed and satisfying thriller from the director-writer team of Will Merrick and Nick Johnson.
It's true that June (“A Wrinkle in Time” star Storm Reid) is mostly by the phone in her Los Angeles home but she’s not waiting: When mom doesn’t return as expected, June checks her reservations, uses Google Street View to inspect the Colombian hotel and notices it has security cameras installed. She then calls the front desk, and, using a Spanish translating software, finds out that the security tape gets overwritten every 48 hours.
So June contacts the FBI — making sure to find and inspect the agent’s online credentials — but also locating and hiring a local Colombian — thank you Venmo — to grab the video and be her eyes and ears on the ground via that nation's equivalent of TaskRabbit. She then sifts through credit card receipts, iPhone location services, live tourist cameras and tons of online sleuthing to get closer to the truth, much better than a flood of salacious online news that sometimes invades June's screen.
“Missing,” building off the related film “Searching” from 2018, manages to make a film about small screens feel electric on a big one. June stands shoulder to shoulder with all other civilians thrust into being world-class detectives, like Veronica Mars or Jessica Fletcher. It's just the tools that have changed, and a noticeable lack of shoe leather that's needed. June shows a real aptitude for guessing passwords and her cut-and-paste game is ferocious.
At one point we see June's laptop screen — a mess of open Sticky Notes, Zillow listings, phone reverse lookups, blocked Twitter tabs, MapQuest directions and new bookmarked contacts — and realize that what we're looking at is the 2023 equivalent of the so-called “murder board,” that trusted collage of random suspect photos tacked onto a cork board and connected by twine. “Missing” doesn't need twine — it's a pure Gen-Z know-how flex.
Merrick and Johnson have so many twists and turns and reverses up their sleeve that you may feel you, too, may have something to do with the disappearance of June's mother (Nia Long, always a pleasure). People have a tendency to arrive in June's frame of vision, then become suspects before eventually getting off the hook. But not all. Your attention will not lag, despite the fact that 80% of the film is watching small screens pop open and closed on June's laptop.
There's also a not-so-subtle lesson here about personal secrecy — or a lack thereof. June becomes a hacker, carefully testing passwords by knowing that users often repeat them across devices, and she accesses supposedly secure locations, like her mom's profile on a fictional dating app. She goes through text logs as easily as court documents, and when she can't figure out the password of something, she just hits the “Forgot Password” button and a new one is sent to her. She even finds clues in secrets her mother has hidden for more than a decade. You might be forgiven if you go home after watching this movie and trigger two-factor authentication on all your stuff.
What's most fascinating about “Missing” is that it's a teen who bails out her Gen X mom using technology that mom barely has a handle on. We are so often dismissive of young adults — from their addiction to TikTok dances to supposedly being unreliable — but you'll want no one but June Allen looking out for you when you go missing. Sherlock Holmes would still be stuck waiting for a flight out of LAX.
“Missing,” a Sony Pictures release exclusively in theaters Jan. 20, is rated PG-13 for “some strong violence, language, teen drinking and thematic material.” Running time: 111 minutes. Three and a half stars out of four.