The premise of Alexandra McGuinness’s She’s Missing is devilishly enticing; the BFF of a shy young woman living in Nowhere, USA disappears into thin air, and she seems to be the only one who cares (and maybe even notices) that the town’s bright spark is gone. McGuinness’s film, her second following 2011’s Lotus Eaters, shares certain DNA with another female director’s missing girl-themed movie, Jennifer Reeder’s Knives and Skin, released earlier this year.
Where that movie trafficked in Twin Peaks-style oddity, She’s Missing is more grounded, but that doesn’t mean McGuinness goes easy on her audience, instead peppering her narrative with dream sequences or possible psychic visions into the future, depending on your perspective. Hers isn’t an easy film to categorize, or even understand at times, but it’s an enthralling and necessarily complex look at female friendship that foregoes easy answers in favor of a discombobulating, dreamily moody atmosphere.
Lucy Fry portrays Heidi, who hangs around with best friend Jane (Baby Driver star Eiza González) and a horse, which the confident, brassy Latina intends to utilize to win the local rodeo and become a star. Jane is one of those characters that’s become kind of cliche — the more interesting friend who’s clearly going to go missing because, well, there would be no story if plain ol’ Heidi disappeared since she’s barely present in the first place. González is a likeable screen presence, but she’s better served when the makeup and other accoutrements are stripped back so there’s no artifice to hide behind. At first, Jane seems more like a persona than a person.
It feels almost like the two ladies are on the run at first, given the barren landscape and their apparent lack of care, but actually theirs is just a hard-scrabble life in backwoods America, the kind of life where both women must work minimum wage jobs while suffering at the hands of creepy customers, even though they clearly want, and deserve, more. When Jane goes missing, Heidi has to take down several other missing person posters just to fit hers in. Elsewhere, sex workers climb into massive trucks to sadly service their customers while a billboard showcasing yet another missing woman looms menacingly in the background.
In spite of the intriguing title, it takes a helluva long time for Jane to actually go missing in She’s Missing. There’s an argument to be made about establishing her friendship with Heidi first (McGuinness hints at a romantic connection throughout but never pulls the trigger, disappointingly), and the narrative drags noticeably before Jane’s inevitable disappearance. Then, once it happens, She’s Missing stalls again as Heidi roams around town trying to figure out a mystery nobody else (including the audience) is terribly invested in — as she’s told, at one stage, that Jane was in danger from nobody but herself.
Complicating matters is sexy cult leader Josh Hartnett, gifted the all-important “And” credit here, who appears late in the movie and showcases his limited acting ability in an underwritten role that ranks dead last after Chris Hemsworth in Bad Times at the El Royale and Chad Michael Murray in Riverdale. Elsewhere, Sheila Vand pops up as the kind of ethereal weirdo character that’s fast becoming her trademark. She pops on-screen, her dark eyes shining, showcasing the flatness of everything around her. There’s also a dodgy border patrol agent who gets involved in an affair with Heidi, which gives She’s Missing a topical edge, at least momentarily.
She’s Missing has a similarly woozy vibe to Knives and Skin and is about as impenetrable. More mood piece than cohesive story, it’s impressive chiefly in how McGuinness mirrors the desolate bleakness of the protagonists’ lives with the parched cinematography of their surrounding landscape. She stalls once again when it comes time to wrap things up, ending on a vague note that suggests a deeper meaning that isn’t quite clear. Maybe the film will benefit from re-watches, to excavate it more intently, but — at first glance — it’s more confusing than anything else.
Still, the performances are terrific across the board. González struggles to get her mouth around the southern vowels, but she’s committed to Jane’s many contradictory neuroses. Similar to fellow Latina Ana de Armas, the actress emotes better when her natural beauty isn’t quite as obvious (as de Armas did in Knives Out) . How is her character called Jane, though? It’s like when J-Lo played someone named Clare in The Boy Next Door; it just doesn’t make any sense. The characters would almost have benefited from swapping names, since Heidi is more fitting for a flighty girl about town than an introverted also-ran.
Australian actress Fry does a better job with the accent, and takes to the tougher role of the two with gumption. Her chemistry with González is keenly felt and effortless; it’s easy to imagine they’ve been close friends for years, and she commands attention when left alone to her own devices, particularly as the tension lags. The story screeches to a halt when it broadens to take in Hartnett’s crew, but Fry and Gonzalez continue to shine through in spite of some creaky, repetitive dialogue. The over-reliance on dream sequences isn’t strictly necessary either, robbing the film of much of its momentum.
Still, taken purely as a study of female friendship, She’s Missing has a lot going for it, from the performances to the captivating cinematography and the decision not to spell everything out. Maybe what it means doesn’t really matter, since clearly it’s the journey rather than the destination that’s important here.
Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG) is a writer from Dublin, Ireland with an unhealthy appetite for horror movies and Judge Judy. In stark contrast with every other Irish person ever, she’s straight edge. Hello to Jason Isaacs.