Missing (2023)

When I think of movie sequels that best their originals, what come to mind are the ones that go bigger, broader, and cartoonishly extreme, exploding the comparatively timid premises of their source texts – titles like Gremlins 2, Ghoulies 2, Child’s Play 2, Paddington 2, Batman Returns, and Magic Mike XXL.  In all of those examples, though, I still like the original films that preceded them, which is more than I can say for the volatile, twisty screenlife thriller MissingMissing is a spin-off sequel to one of my least favorite entries in the screenlife genre, Searching (a film that I should note Britnee reviewed very positively for this site back in 2018).  Searching wasn’t embarrassing in the way that lower-budget screenlife schlock like Safer at Home and Untitled Horror Movie can be, but I still resented it for cleaning up a trashy genre I love for its illogical technophobic fearmongering by turning it into safe, This Is Us-style melodrama.  Laptop-POV thrillers should prey on the eeriness of life on the internet, not act as tech-friendly advertisements that constantly reassure parents their terminally online children are actually doing okay.  It was basically Unfriended for the corniest of suburbanites, a perspective I was happy to see dropped in its much meaner, trashier sequel.

Missing improves on the Searching formula in practically every way, most of all in how it maintains a healthy paranoia around modern tech even while explaining why it’s useful (and in how it’s willing to put its characters in actual, sustained danger instead of just pretending to).  Storm Reid stars as the mouse-clicking, keyboard clacking internet detective du jour, a teenager who investigates the sudden disappearance of her mother—lost while vacationing in Colombia—from her laptop control room in California.  Missing‘s tone echoes the hokey schmaltz of Searching‘s parent-child melodrama, scoring its petty mother-daughter tensions with heart-tugging piano flourishes you’d expect to hear in an engagement ring jewelry store commercial.  Only, while Reid clicks away at the Ring cameras, location trackers, search histories, password workarounds, and username paper trails at her fingertips to solve the mystery of her mother’s disappearance, she’s revealing more than just the speedbumps & heartbreaks of modern familial bonds; she’s also cataloging the tools of the modern surveillance state.  The surface-level text of the film details the twists & turns of a Dateline-style “true” crime mystery and subsequent familial grief, while the glaring subtext is all about how deep privacy-invading technology has already seeped into our daily lives in ways we’ve learned to ignore, simply because it’s convenient.

One of the major things I love about screenlife thrillers (and one of the major reasons they’re dismissed as frivolous novelties) is their nimble ability to document of-the-moment trends in modern life online.  It’s something most other genres are scared to touch for fear of looking gimmicky or dated, despite computer screens accounting for so much of the visual data most audiences absorb on a daily basis.  There’s something fearlessly honest about engaging with that supposedly uncinematic imagery, but I also just like to imagine how incomprehensible screenlife aesthetics would be to earliest cinemagoers who were astounded by The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station in 1896.  For its part, Missing doesn’t have many updates in modern screenlife to document, except maybe the frustrating ambiguity of Captcha challenges and the low-key hostility of a thumbs-up emoji.  It does have plenty notes about life outside of the computer, though, marking our cultural obsession with turning real life tragedies into true crime #content; zoomer teens’ uncanny savvy in navigating the back roads of social media; and our casual, collective acceptance of privacy invasion from vampiric tech-world capitalists.  On a more practical, immediate level, it’s most useful as a showcase for Reid’s skills as a young actor and editors-turned-directors Will Merrick & Nick Johnson’s understanding of screenlife’s unique visual language, since those three collaborators account for almost everything we see onscreen.  It’s a fun, well-staged mainstream thriller with just the right balance between social commentary, shameless sentimentality, and trashy what-the-fuck twists, when Searching only hit one of those three metrics.

-Brandon Ledet

Deadstream (2022)

Because I’m such a glutton for screenlife horror films, my expectations when approaching each new entry in the genre are pitifully low.  For every genius laptop-POV thriller out there like Unfriended, Host, and Spree, there’s ten times as many dull, uninventive imitators like Searching, Safer at Home, and Untitled Horror Movie.  Screenlife filmmaking is such an easily affordable, attention-grabbing gimmick that the genre has become overcrowded to the point where it’s no more of a novelty than carbon, oxygen, or tap water.  I’m still always thirsty for more found footage chillers about cursed internet broadcasts, though, so I couldn’t resist the unassuming haunted house horror comedy Deadstream when I saw it on the program for this year’s Overlook Film Fest.  I went into the movie expecting more post-Unfriended mediocrity, which is likely why I found it such a constantly surprising delight.  It got huge laughs in a way that transported me back to Overlook’s joyous screenings of One Cut of the Dead the last time the festival was staged in-person in 2019.  It’s easy to roll your eyes at the simplicity & tardiness of its premise in a market overcrowded with so much screenlife #content, but Deadstream is a verified crowdpleaser.

Deadstream essentially does for Blair Witch what Host did for Unfriended: borrowing its basic outline to stage a chaotic assemblage of over-the-top, technically impressive scare gags.  A found-footage horror comedy about an obnoxious social media influencer getting his cosmic comeuppance while livestreaming his overnight tour of a haunted house, it also functions as a kind of internet-era tech update for the vintage media nostalgia of the WNUF Halloween Special.  The influencer in question is a smartass YouTuber with a popular channel named Wrath of Shawn and a sub-Ryan Reynolds sense of humor.  He’s occasionally funny but relentlessly grating, not to mention casually sexist, racist, and classist.  Hot off six months of “cancellation” for an “insensitive” YouTube stunt he’s reluctant to sincerely discuss, he attempts to earn back his audience & sponsors with a night spent in the aforementioned haunted house.  There, he runs afoul the ghost of “Odd Duck Mildred”, a Mormon-raised poet and victim of suicide who violently hijacks his livestream to promote her own poetry.  Even while being supernaturally tortured for his sins against humanity & good taste, Shawn remains brand-conscious in his self-referential catchphrases and shameless audience engagement tactics – a true heel to the end. 

The shitheel YouTuber’s way of delivering frat boy one-liners in a Steve from Blue’s Clues voice is dead-on in its parody of social media celebrity.  He’s so heavily weighed down by his camera equipment & brand-awareness duty to his sponsors that it’s impossible to get him to interact with the world outside his tablet screen with any semblance of sincerity. Thankfully, Mildred is there to slap him around as an undead audience surrogate, throwing exponentially absurd, gross-out scares in his path until the entire house is crawling with spooks & ghouls who’ve joined her cause.  The movie itself never feels like a mess, though, despite its potential to devolve into the found-footage equivalent of Spookies.  It’s very careful to explain the camera angles, editing tech, and audience input that makes its live-feed broadcast plausible, down to Shawn visibly pressing play on his Walkman’s pre-loaded “Shawn Carpenter” soundtrack to build tension.  There’s an ambition in thoroughness & scale here that represents the very best of what the screenlife format can do for filmmakers with little funds but plenty imagination.  Deadstream is an excellent argument that the genre is still thriving even as it’s become more pedestrian.  More importantly, it’s a very funny, effectively scary horror comedy where the worst things happen to the worst kind of person.

-Brandon Ledet

Language Lessons (2021)

There was much attention paid to the dual achievements of Ridley Scott & Ryusuke Hamaguchi directing two films each in 2021, but I haven’t personally seen any of the four films they released last year (House of Gucci & The Last Duel and Drive My Car & Wheel of Fortune and Fantasy, respectively).  However, I have seen the dual directorial debuts of actor-turned-auteur Natalie Morales, Plan B & Language Lessons – both released in 2021.  Plan B was the higher-profile release of the pair, boasting a larger budget and a substantial promotional push when it premiered on Hulu.  It’s a fun addition to the new wave of teen sex comedies that attempt to de-Porky’s the genre by giving girls’ libidos a spin at the wheel for a change (joining titles like Blockers, Booksmart, The To Do List, and Never Have I Ever). Language Lessons is a much smaller film in scope & cultural impact, both of which were restricted by circumstances of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.  Filmed on laptops with an onscreen cast of two, Language Lessons finds Morales toying with the screenlife genre the same way she played around with the tropes of the teen sex comedy in Plan B.  There’s nothing flashy about her directorial style in either film, but she demonstrates a sharply tuned ear for comedic banter in both, which is especially evident in the film that is pure dialogue with no visual distractions from the script.

Mark Duplass stars as a nouveau riche Oakland hipster whose semi-famous husband buys him 100 Spanish language lessons as a surprise birthday gift.  His teacher is played by Morales herself, who’s much more protective of her personal life and is unsure how chummy she wants to be with a stranger she’ll be speaking to on a weekly basis for two solid years.  There are many barriers obstructing the mismatched pair’s path to a genuine friendship: their California/Costa Rica locations, their wealth/working class social statuses, their gringo/Latina cultural heritages, etc.  Gradually, though, the professional & transactional boundaries of their relationship break down and they become genuine, real-life friends – often through abrupt, shocking events in their lives off-screen.  The story is told entirely through Skype calls & video messages but doesn’t do anything remarkably unexpected with the screenlife format.  It’s just well written & performed enough to get by as a compelling one-on-one dialogue exchange, no visual embellishments necessary.  In comparison to other 2021 releases on similar topics, it doesn’t have quite as much to say about the transactional nature of modern online social life as Pvt Chat, but it’s a better attempt to remold dusty romcom tropes into a sincere story about friendship than Together TogetherPlan B is likely the 2021 Morales film that will be remembered & respected over time, but Language Lessons helps reinforce that her excellent dialogue & character work in that better-publicized debut was no fluke.

Sweeping Morales to the side for a second, Language Lessons does feel like a no-brainer Duplass Brothers project for the COVID era.  Not only was there a huge uptick in Duolingo users learning new languages in their idle time early in the pandemic (myself included, until Hurricane Ida power outages interrupted my momentum), but the safety protocols of COVID-era productions make for the exact kind of intimate indie dramas that the Duplasses cut their teeth producing.  At their best, Duplass productions are exciting reminders that just a couple people & a camera are more than enough resources to slap a decent movie together (as long as the script is strong).  Casting Mark as one of those two people in this instance makes Language Lessons feel like a wholesome counterpoint to Creep, a natural evolution of the exact kinds of movies they produce in normal circumstances anyway.  Morales is credited as the sole director of this production, but she shares the writing credit with Duplass, marking it as a true collaboration between them.  I’m not sure what she plans to accomplish as a filmmaker in the long term, but she had a great start in 2021 with two solidly entertaining, surprisingly political indie comedies released in the same calendar year.  Neither one is going to earn the level of attention the decades-established filmmakers Scott & Hamaguchi are enjoying but, again, she’s just getting started.

-Brandon Ledet