From Without friends introduced a mainstream audience to desktop movies (also called “life on the screen”) almost a decade ago, several films have tried to repeat its success. The first film was shown in real time and unfolded mainly through a Skype call. In 2023, the last entry in the genre, It’s missing, takes things to new levels. Its makers Researcher, a desktop film starring John Cho as a father trying to find his daughter, reversed the roles to portray an 18-year-old girl, June (Storm Reid), on the hunt for her mother. Everything unfolds on a computer screen.
When I first saw Researcher, I was disappointed that it broke free of the constraints imposed by many of the previous films. Not only did it break with the “real-time” conceit that was still often used, but it featured zooms intended to reproduce a user focusing their attention on elements rather than the whole screen. For me, at least, the purity and rigor of being forced to watch a full screen was part of the appeal.
It’s missing took those zooms and brought them into overdrive. It features rapid-fire editing and “close-ups” and uses different computers to invoke other points of view. As the film opens, we are treated to similar software from over a decade ago, using old operating systems to cause changes in time (which was also used in Timur Bekmambetov’s Profile). The script is signed by its director Researcher but directed by two newcomers, Nicholas D. Johnson and Will Merrick.
The style that irritated me slightly Researcher it works much better here. It pulls us into the perspective of a Zoomer on the rim. not only does she want to party, but she also wants to fight her mother with a new man, her first long-term relationship since her father’s death. The film opens with a video captured on a video camera of a happy family when June was just a toddler. Fast forward over a decade, June is eagerly waiting for her mother to go on a romantic vacation to Colombia so she and her friends can party hard for a week.
When June goes to pick up her mother at the airport, however, her mother never shows up. She calls the hotel, only to find that her mother and boyfriend have left all their belongings behind. With no money and Google Translate-level Spanish, she uses all her computer know-how to find traces of her mother. Much like Researcherthe film includes escalating and bizarre twists and turns that may test the audience’s ability to control and turn off their brains, but if you’re willing to go along for the ride, it’s an undeniably good, thrilling ride.
While desktop movies are still ahead Without friends, as a stylistic choice, touch on something incredibly modern. They reproduce digital worlds and operate at the pace of web browsing and a screen. It should come as no surprise that a decade on Without friends, things have become faster. They are more frantic as the line between our digital and analog selves becomes increasingly blurred. The suspense, drawn from expected and established tropes, is also heavily based on concerns that are exclusive to our online lives. For better or worse, the film captures the overwhelming stimulus of modern life.
It also does a pretty good job of stemming the rising tide against true crime coverage. June is a fan of a popular (fictional) true crime TV show at the beginning, and we witness her frustration with online communities that aim to “solve crimes” and “ask questions” in a way that distorts facts and reality. The film allows viewers to get caught up in possible theories, bombarded by the TikToks and Facebook posts of online sleuths making wild guesses about June and her mother. All are anticipating June’s inevitable “horror story” reimagining for the small screen.
While not my favorite desktop movie, It’s missing continues to build on the style, and for fans of unconventional horror films (which are no less enjoyable for mainstream audiences), you can’t go wrong here. The film’s final act stretches some of the audience’s suspension of disbelief, going for a narrative spectacle that most people won’t see coming. However, overall the film is an enjoyable and suspenseful experience. ■
Missing opens in Montreal theaters on Friday January 20.
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