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A mother disappears and a tense thriller ensues on screens: NPR

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June (Storm Reid) is on the case when her mother disappears while on vacation with her boyfriend.

Temma Hankin/Sony Pictures

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Temma Hankin/Sony Pictures

June (Storm Reid) is on the case when her mother disappears while on vacation with her boyfriend.

Temma Hankin/Sony Pictures

It is a universally recognized truth that repetition often destroys elegance.

Compare the elegance of Speed (if this bus slows down it will explode) with the clumsy Speed ​​2: Cruise Control (this cruise ship will run very slowly to the beach). the elegance of Fast and furious (road racing is fun!) with Ludacris and Tyrese Gibson ending up in space. the elegance of Hard to kill (a police officer tries to rescue a building full of hostages) with… well, anyone else Hard to kill film.

The 2014 horror movie No friend, one of the first entries in the “screenlife” category in which everything takes place on computer screens, is formally elegant – simple, economical and effective. Most of the time you’re just watching a group video call, with periodic visits to other places like Facebook or incomplete and unpleasantly believable forums where the links seem to go anywhere. And this video call, it turns out, is haunted and will gradually knock everyone into it. That’s the story; this is the format. Screenlife has ties not only to “found-footage” films (also formally elegant: The Blair Witch Project), but also to epistolary novels. In all of these forms, the traditional telling of a story is replaced by the opportunity for the viewer/reader to examine the evidence that the story happened.

One of the producers No friend was Timur Bekmambetov, who was also a producer not only of its successor No friends: Dark Webbut also the 2018 thriller screenlife Searching. Searching was directed by Aneesh Chaganty and stars John Cho as a father stumbling into his teenage daughter’s digital life trying to solve the mystery of her disappearance. And now, Bekmambetov is a producer of Absence ofwhich is a flashier, more elegant and – yes – less formally elegant project, written and directed by Nick Johnson and Will Merrick, who were editors of Searching.

Absence of stars Storm Reid as June, a bright and restless young woman whose mother, Grace (Nia Long), disappears while on vacation in Colombia with her boyfriend, Kevin (Ken Leung). In an inversion of Searchingtense portrayal of a father who feels helpless and adrift in the complexities of his daughter’s highly connected life, Absence of makes June a Gen-Z’er who knows how to get around adults who reuse their passwords, fail to secure their devices, and therefore leave themselves open to all kinds of snooping. This is her environment; she is at home here on your screens.

It’s a good thing June is comfortable with her technology, because 10 years later No friend, your online life has become a lot more complicated than that haunted video call. She has a Ring doorbell, voice activated everything, she can talk to people all over the world who aren’t in front of their computers, she inhabits a world full of live webcams, and home security systems have exploded. Her life on social media is not about a Facebook page; it’s about bits and bobs scattered everywhere. She’s not John Cho’s David either. Searching, which slowly explores one platform at a time, meticulously dragging individual snippets of information out of the dark. June jumps from window to window like a plate spinner; following her “life on screen” investigation into her mother’s disappearance is dizzying. It’s her expectation this information she needs can be found somewhere on her laptop. Editing was sped up and complicated by consciously inventive visual transitions, and sadly, much of the simplicity was lost.

There is something strongly confident, in retrospect, about No friend, which reproduces the boring acts of typing and scrolling in real time, the frustrations of trying to repeatedly click on things that can’t be clicked. (Because there’s a virus, and that virus is… a ghost.) In classic horror fashion, what’s unseen in this movie is often scarier than what’s seen, and what’s seen is limited by the format. Although it’s a thriller rather than a horror movie, Searchingalso moves deliberately, making limited but effective use of hidden cameras, streaming, and other avenues that allow for a found-footage style (more akin to Paranormal activity or The Blair Witch Project) to replace a pure screen lifestyle.

A lot of Absence of, however, particularly towards the end of its story, is more of a found film than a screenlife film. It doesn’t rely on messages, chats, forums or that type-and-scroll dance – it shows a normal scene, but from the perspective of a camera that exists within the story.

Absence of it’s not a bad movie; And a good movie. It’s smart, Reid is great, the suspense elements are exciting, the twists are surprising, and some of the moments where June overcomes people who are trying to cut her off from the information she needs are highly satisfying. At the same time, it feels, in a slightly disheartening way, like a regression to the mean, where the repetition of this format in films (with perhaps ever-increasing box office expectations) makes them less and less formally interesting.

June’s active and inventive exploration of online information is also, perhaps, part of the evolution of a concept that travels from the realm of terror to the realm of suspense, with the shift in intensity it suggests. Maybe if a thriller is about what scares you, a horror movie is about what scares you. more – that’s an oversimplification and certainly not genre-defining, but it captures something about the difference between the adrenaline rush of thrillers and the visceral punch of horror.

What scares many of us more it’s not the danger itself, but the growing sense of helplessness and hopelessness that horror does so well. What June has at her disposal is a multitude of tools, new paths to explore. Absence of it’s a study of the ways in which the internet is littered with hundreds of ways to solve a problem; it’s a story about bending those tools to your will. No friend it was about the anonymous message, the blank page, the blinking cursor, the grayed out option, the spinning ball, the bewildering intrusion – life online when it doesn’t work.

But it’s hard not to imagine what a thriller that had more faith in that format would be like, that didn’t feel so beholden to found footage movies. It is another universally acknowledged truth that limitations often spur creativity; Absence of without the benefit of so many cameras affordable for June, spying would be an adventure in itself.