Written by J. Kim Murphy, Variety
The morbid draw of true crime — vicariously experiencing other people’s tragedies by sifting through the elements that caused them — goes under the microscope in the kitschy whodunnit “Susie Searches.” Sophie Kargman’s feature debut, expanded from her short of the same name, plays on the dangers that come when voyeur becomes an interference, but the sort-of thriller doesn’t have the bite to investigate the provocative sympathy it has for its meddling antihero.
An aspiring gumshoe, Susie is first introduced as a precocious grade schooler, sitting beside her mother, Anne (Jammie Patton) as the two read a detective novel — the nice kind that encourages adolescent curiosity and ends with a virtuous sleuth catching a mustache-twirling menace. An affecting montage shows the pair continuing their shared hobby as the years pass. Anne falls ill as her daughter dutifully cares for her, growing into a wannabe wunderkind (Kiersey Clemons), now a college student hosting her own true crime podcast, but still as wide-eyed as a child.
Early on, “Susie Searches” recalls the tone of those kid-appropriate, Nancy Drew-style mystery novels. Adam Reamer’s affectionate production design evokes the friendly colors of kindergarten arts and crafts. Susie clocks out at the ocean teal Bonanza Burger before heading to the warm wooden browns of the police station for an internship. Her bedroom is a rainbow of organized information, with paper folders mounted against the walls and corkboards plastered with suspect’s photographs, all criss-crossed by string.
But there’s a definite archness to the innocent premise, most evident in Susie’s isolation. She’s not just an awkward conversationalist; she’s a failed media start-up, with nobody tuning into the podcast she pours her heart and soul into. Distraught by her lack of listeners, lonely Susie is eager to leap at what she senses is her big break: the kidnapping of fellow student Jesse (Alex Wolff), the son of a local real estate magnate and a meditation guru with a sizable internet following.
What begins as a dogged investigation finds a resolution quickly — and it’s from there that “Susie Searches” looks beneath its sunny tone to reveal satirical ambitions. Unfortunately, that’s also where the film starts to fall apart.
Without spoiling the specifics, it turns out that Susie isn’t exactly the bastion of moral tenacity that the film’s opening act would suggest. She has her own interests that she’s desperate enough to take questionable routes to reach. Clemons’ strong performance provides enough of a center to propel the story to its conclusion. Though Susie’s enthusiastic narration papers the film, it’s all played as a nervous tic. Clemons is at her best when her character runs out of things to say and her braces-faced grin curdles into worry.
But “Susie Searches” lets its lead off easy by painting almost every other character as a brash, annoying phony. There’s Jesse, who speaks in generic worship for humanity and has the personality of a paper cup to match. Susie’s burger joint co-worker (Rachel Sennott) is characterized as little more than an uncurious nag, while their boss (Ken Marino) is just a worrywart with a short fuse. There’s also the local sheriff (Jim Gaffigan), a friendly but completely clueless officer, plus a college administrator (Geoffrey Owens) who can only boast about how the investigation has led to increased alumni donations and undergrad applications. Kargman corrals her cast well enough, each actor meeting the film at its heightened tone. But nobody really seems to be carrying any secrets — a tall hurdle for a whodunit pastiche to overcome.
That ungenerous attitude toward Susie’s world hijacks the mood as the film goes full-tilt media circus lampoon. The jokes fall flat, as the film remains too protective of Susie — a young woman who compromises herself to gain recognition from a population of idiots, but doesn’t show an ounce of cynicism about the matter. Her decisions seem to have been instinctive and there aren’t a lot of dramatic stakes to watching a person get everything they want without any self-reflection.
“Susie Searches” belatedly moves to introduce some consequences in its final act, culminating in a stand-off that’s high on convenience and low on suspense. The coda — a secret accidentally revealed — sets up a much more dramatically challenging finale before cutting to credits. The lasting impression is a missed opportunity.
Production Designer: Adam Reamer