My sister has been missing since July. I think about her every day. Wonder where she is, if she is, what has happened to her. As grief tends to go, you can eventually accept hard facts. There will be no search parties. There will be no online plot to save her. There will be a couple posts from the media with plausibly shocking comments from people who will never know her. There will mostly be a long enduring silence and emptiness, a pit inside your stomach that does not go away but remains ever-present and fills you with a hollowness but your memories never go missing when the person does. What the person means to you doesn’t go missing.
Most of the time when women go missing it is a technological dead road. It’s nice that it’s so tidy in movies. You wish it were that way in real life. That you could just be online and fumble your way into so many easy solutions that outline an online presence and a lifeline for a grieving family.
When there is so little presence and all of their technology is left behind, it goes a bit differently. I thought about my sister a lot last year. Right after she went missing Nope came out. In the theater, all I could think about was showing her Jordan Peele’s US (2019) — her enthusiastic idea that people that look like her could actually be in this kind of movie that was also specific to her. One of my favorite movie memories. And you realize how important representation is, but also the accuracy of human experience, even in the twisted America of Peele’s imagination, which is just as twisted as the real thing. That is such a great thing about being the older brother and having always been the oldest of my generation — you get to show family things and most importantly, experience their discoveries.
And you wonder, if she’s still out there, what would she feel about a movie like Missing, the quasi-sequel to the 2018 mystery-thriller Searching? You think about these things but then realize that without the person, the connective tissue is a trivial matter. If this person is missing, it is another hole you may never get to fill. And you wish, against all hope, that every investigation of missing people went the way they did in these movies.
The Screenlife trend in general is of great interest to me. How we interface with technology is how we interface with people. The design of technology is made to suit our lives and contexts of use and so it’s a beautiful way to make a movie, because it provides inherent technical restraints that should foster a certain curiosity. By using only the tech belonging to one person, you are truly inside their parasocial world. You get to see what they are really like, in a more honest way than how people generally present to the world.
This entry, however, is dishonest in its tech interests. It does not really want to be tied to these devices. It does amplify the wider usage of apps, video content, and online portals into our lives, but it is impatient in doing so, so badly wanting to capture every angle of online life, that it forgets it would be more meaningful and captivating if it allowed itself to breathe under one limitation, to just exist in Zoom calls and online searches, or to just live inside the screen. It wants so badly to capture the media of outside sources. Of people taking pictures of our characters, of live cameras that captured movement, of TikTok videos, dating sites, payment clients, secure chat apps, gig work websites, many security video cameras in all the right places to record the action that now gets to happen outside the home. It just becomes another movie about reclaiming a loss, but with a whole cavalcade of apps-of-the-moment filling it’s time.
And everyone is so tradable in these worlds. Think about how the internet is now. Smaller than it used to be. Contained to closed systems and social apps. We must believe that the mom who can not operate her phone is also adept at online dating. We must believe in a whole digital universe that solves every problem when the mom goes missing.
But women go missing every day. Too often, there are no answers at all. It’s especially true for women of diverse backgrounds, like my sister. The want for the media to really find out about them and the narrative that happens in the subsequent online comments, is more harmful than helpful. “Maybe there’s a reason children run away,” someone will say and another will add, “the parents ought to have taught them a lesson…”
There is not a media circus. It is too common for women of color to go missing this way. We got a couple social media posts from local news affiliates, some ugly comments sections, and nothing in the way of identification, answers, or even signals to what may have happened. Just a vacuous online signal to noise ratio that offers no favor. There will be no Netflix documentary for the women who are not found. There will be no high-tech online quest solved by some wizards on Reddit.
And the movie buys into its own bullshit so fully that you wish it would ever be true. That any investigation would get the presence and widespread attention that the ones in these movies get. Their existence is like an absolution of our guilt that this doesn’t ever happen. It is such a sad glimpse into what society doesn’t do. What the media has no interest in doing. A peace offering to families who will never know this kind of piece again and will remain so irrevocably empty and sad and feel like finding a loved one is only something that happens in Hollywood, or as this movie often corrects it’s characters, Van Nuys.
And it doesn’t matter. Watching a movie isn’t getting my sister back. That is not the job of the directors. They are not even really able to focus on making a coherent movie. You don’t want to ask anything of them. The good outcome of the movie is the casting, with Storm Reid at the center (who reminds me so much of my sister, in fact) who must conference with the entirety of the internet to find her mom, played by Nia Long. Most of the twists are total fantasy outliers — it’s not played as straight as the more reserved Searching but as a parent-child reversal, does find a few things to do with the swapped context.
If your family has gone missing you might think about what you would want to tell them. If you could talk just one more time. I’d tell my sister about Nope certainly and how much she is loved and truly missed. You do not know if you’ll ever have the opportunity. But you’ll think about it every day it doesn’t happen.