Sitting uncomfortably on the line between serious psychological drama and noir-ish suspense, director/co-writer Luke Sabis’s Missing Child gets off to an intriguing start but soon finds itself stumbling, as confused and uncertain as the lost young person suggested by its title.
The film sets up a potentially compelling mystery in its opening sequence, a harrowing POV shot from the perspective of a kidnapped little girl in the back seat of her captor’s car. This appears to be the fragmented, distressed memory of Gia (Kristen Ruhlin), who we meet as a 21-year-old aspiring design student in the following scene. As the script fairly efficiently establishes, Gia is troubled by some nagging questions about her traumatic childhood, though she seems less concerned about the faintly remembered apparent kidnapping than she does with finding the identity of the birth parents she’s never met.
“Devolves into clumsily staged confrontations and illogical suspense mechanics…”
That partly explains why she’s taken up with much older live-in boyfriend Joe (played by Sabis himself), a bounty hunter by trade – he’s useful for both tracking down missing people and roughing up any shady characters from Gia’s past that might show up at her door. Seemingly a protective father figure-type, it’s Joe who tips off Gia to a kidnapping cold case that could be a promising lead in the search for her parents; the abductee is right around Gia’s age and, even more promisingly, the digitally age-progressed photo of the young victim bears more than a passing resemblance to her. The search brings Gia and Joe to the home of soft-spoken widower Henry (Charles Gorgano), grief-stricken father of the missing girl and, in turn, possibly Gia’s long-lost biological dad.
To reveal much more about Missing Child‘s plot would be unfair, but it should suffice to say that things aren’t entirely as they seem, and the situation eventually progresses down some dark and dangerous paths. The film obviously hinges on the question of whether Henry is Gia’s father or not, and in theory, that, coupled with Gia’s struggle to come to terms with her past, should be enough to hang a movie on. Ruhlin mostly succeeds at making Gia sympathetic and relatable, and while Gorgano and, especially, Sabis, can’t quite keep up acting-wise, Missing Child proceeds for a while as a fairly solid, if not overwhelming, domestic drama.
Unfortunately, though, the film has other aims in mind, shifting into thriller territory in such an abrupt and heavy-handed way that it deflates a lot of whatever psychological realism the filmmakers were going for. Missing Child still desperately wants to be taken seriously at that point, but when it devolves into clumsily staged confrontations and illogical suspense mechanics, it sacrifices both credibility and audience goodwill. Head-scratching tonal shifts from scene to scene further drag things down; characters will be at each others’ throats one minute, then chatting calmly and wistfully the next, as if everyone involved has been stricken with a temporary bout of amnesia. Keeping Ruhlin off-screen and giving her character a frustrating lack of agency at potentially pivotal moments weakens these sequences to an even greater degree.
“Makes one feel bewildered, but not in the way the filmmakers surely intended…”
Missing Child does eventually get around to some fairly disturbing revelations, as it promises to early on, and to the filmmakers’ credit, they’re handled about as tastefully and non-exploitatively as can be expected. But this material also doesn’t have the impact that it should, coming off more as a superficial Law and Order: SVU plot twist than it does a psychologically haunting disclosure that leaves viewers reeling. The ending is mostly a shrug, as well.
The ultimate effect of Missing Child is to make one feel bewildered, but not in the profound, emotionally unsettling way that the filmmakers surely intended. Instead, the lingering questions are more along the lines of where, exactly, the film goes off the rails, how it might have recovered from those missteps, and whether Sabis and company simply bit off more than they could chew in tackling such ostensibly weighty material in what amounts to a fairly standard indie thriller. This might have been satisfying, and it might have earned its unpleasant twists, but – much like its central character – Missing Child is plagued by questions and resolutions that remain frustratingly outside its ability to grasp.
Missing Child (2015) Directed by Luke Sabis. Written by Luke Sabis and Michael Barbuto. Starring Kristen Ruhlin, Charles Gorgano, Luke Sabis, Jenifer Straley, and Todd Baker.
2 out of 5 stars