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‘Susie Searches’ Review: Sophie Kargman Feature Falls Short After Auspicious Setup

The first 25 minutes of “Susie Searches” is so tight, so hilarious and original, beaming with a buoyant teenage energy that could kickoff an entire film series of adventures, that it’s shocking how unyielding, mismanaged and sappy the next hour of the movie becomes. The drop-off is steep, and unfortunate. An expansion by Sophie Kargman of her same-titled 2020 short, “Susie Searches” aims to be about loss and loneliness, and isolation and recognition. But spins its wheels toward mediocrity, instead.

Susie (Kiersey Clemons) is a college student, with braces strapped across her wide smile and an unquenchable love of whodunits. Every night she records a podcast showcasing her sleuthing skills to her moribund audience. Far from the popular girl at school, she languishes in obscurity, while taking care of her ailing mother and volunteering as an intern for the local sheriff’s department run by an aloof Sheriff Loggins (the ever-vulnerable Jim Gaffigan). She watches from the proverbial sidelines as her classmate, Jessie (Alex Wolff), becomes a social media sensation through his self-help meditative videos. If only people could see how talented she is, maybe, just maybe, Susie could be that popular. Her chance to prove her investigative skills arises when Jessie is suddenly kidnapped. During her detective work, Susie wins a wellspring of adulation, and endures several waves of panic.

While “Susie Searches” takes plenty of guidance from the Nancy Drew series, the suburban-set lark also recalls Jocelyn DeBoer and Dawn Luebbe’s surreal comedy “Greener Grass.” Like that dark satire, Kargman sets a deliberately awkward and comedically wooden tone in the shadows of an eccentric suburban milieu where oddball characters abound. Clemons, who broke out with the endearing musical, “Hearts Beat Loud,” taps into similar ebullient waters. She possesses an inherent sweetness and unassuming charm that imbues her every action with a layer of genuineness that gives breath to even the uncanniest of outcasts. Her aw-shucks bounce carries the early goings of this film, but it can’t fully elevate what eventually becomes dire material by screenwriter William Day Frank.

Because once Susie discovers the location of Jessie, thereby becoming the town’s hero, the entire mood of the film turns upside from a plucky adventure to a sinister awakening that betrays the delightful, if silly components of the first act.

Is Susie really as good as she appears? Or is there the edge of something unrecognizable lurking beneath the surface? The rest of “Susie Searches” feels like a desperate attempt to make a tween horror flick out of the answers to these questions. Because when Jessie’s friend suddenly disappears, people begin to wonder if a serial criminal is on the loose. The town’s initial suspect seems to be Jessie’s estranged uncle. That is, until their gaze hits closer to Susie’s home. In the process, the color palette shifts from a candy colored pleasure to a dour fog of grim hues. And while she investigates the whereabouts of his friend, the hugely admired Jessie grows closer to Susie.

Wolff is sensational as the apparently shallow social-media darling who gingerly reveals the depths of his dreams and empathy. He becomes a real friend to Susie. And the easy chemistry shared by Wolff and Clemons keeps you engaged, even when the loopy twists and turns offer tonal head-scratchers. This role for Wolff, in particular, demonstrates his growth as an actor, born from films like “Hereditary,” “Pig” and “Old” — and his ability to make meals out of morsels.

The other actors, through no fault of their own, do not fare as well in “Susie Searches.” Take the fast food restaurant where Susie works at: There, her co-worker is a woman with a corrosive wit and a penchant for casual cruelty. The more you watch her, the more you begin to say to yourself, “Rachel Sennott would annihilate this role.” And then you realize that this is Sennott. It’s odd to see an actress who holds a barely containable energy like Sennott has in “Shiva Baby” and “Bodies Bodies Bodies,” caged within a dead-end character like this one. With her hair up and her face nearly obscured by an oversized cap, she’s barely recognizable too. Likewise, Ken Marino, as the restaurant’s unhinged manager, claws to carve his own niche. He ultimately discovers a patch of chewable ground, but it arrives in the film’s most incongruous scene.

Kargman’s desire to paint a seedy true-crime veneer onto “Susie Searches” causes the finale to become a bloody, gory slasher. How we got to such a disparate closing is the real mystery. Why it took a slow 105-minutes to do so, is the other conundrum. But once we enter, the destination isn’t even worth the uneven journey it took to arrive. In the midst of the closing, mind-numbing freakout, you begin to search your mind for the joy provided in the elegantly scripted first quarter of “Susie Searches,” the one that arose from such a simple and affecting short, only to realize that like Susie’s reputation, it’ll unfortunately never return.

Grade: C-

“Susie Searches” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution. 

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