THE STORY – Susie is an awkward college student with a failing true-crime podcast. She seizes the opportunity to boost her popularity by solving the mysterious disappearance of Jesse. a campus heartthrob. With her star on the rise, events soon take a dark turn as she digs out the truth and finds herself in over her head.
THE CAST – Kiersey Clemons, Alex Wolff & Jim Gaffigan
THE TEAM – Sophie Kargman (Director/Writer) & William Day Frank (Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 105 Minutes
Susie Wallis (Kiersey Clemons) may look unassuming, but she has an incredible mind. Ever since she was little, she was able to figure out whodunnit in every mystery novel her mother read to her. Nowadays, Susie’s incredible mind is getting a bit of a workout. She may almost always have a braces-filled smile on her face, but she’s a part-time student at college (the 12th-ranked pre-med program in Ohio!) with a part-time job at the college food court and an internship at the local sheriff’s office. All this while taking care of her mother, who’s stuck at home with MS, and producing her true crime podcast, which has no listeners despite her endearing vocal persona and the many flyers she posts around campus. All of this changes, though, when campus heartthrob and meditation YouTuber Jesse (Alex Wolff) goes missing, setting the whole campus abuzz and the town along with it. Uniquely positioned as the perfect person to solve the case, Susie takes it upon herself to find Jesse wherever the truth leads her. Find him she does, and this is where Sophie Kargman’s “Susie Searches” (named after Susie’s podcast) gets really interesting, in part because Kargman and screenwriter William Day Frank have concocted some incredibly clever twists and turns for Susie and Jesse. Unfortunately, they may have bitten off a bit more than they can chew.
While the plot of “Susie Searches” goes to some unexpected, potent places, the film’s tone is all over the place. It seems to want to be a social satire, a thriller, a character study, and a mystery while also parodying the murder mystery and true crime genres. That’s a lot for one film, and not everything works as well as it needs to in order for the film to cohere into a satisfying whole. Kargman is primarily good at conveying each different register she wants to hit and the parts of the film that work (almost everything involving the school sending Susie and Jesse on a small press tour; every appearance of Rachel Sennott as Susie’s food court co-worker) are incredibly enjoyable. However, several scenes appear to want to work in two opposing registers at once, and every time, the pacing falters, and the actors feel like they’re floundering as if the film quite literally can’t sustain the weight of all it’s trying to do.
This is frustrating because the whole cast is doing excellent work on the whole. Ken Marino is perfectly awkward as Susie’s potentially crazy boss, Jim Gaffigan is perfectly affable as the town Sheriff, Wolff perfectly mixes genuine humility and self-importance as a wannabe influencer who makes videos with titles like “How Stairs Help Me Think,” and Sennott continues to steal every project she takes part in just by being herself. This film, though, belongs to Kiersey Clemons, and what a treat it is to see her take this role and run with it. Susie is not as cheerful and friendly as her bright smile and chipper voice can make her seem, and Clemons brings depth to the role even in small, seemingly insignificant moments. Susie’s arc is highly unexpected, even after the film drops the first of its many fun “gotcha!” moments, and it needs a performer who can navigate the script’s hairpin turns while making it all seem natural. Clemons does this effortlessly, giving Susie a strong emotional core that makes it impossible not to feel for her, even when she’s doing something morally murky. When the film finally drops the hammer at the end, it comes at the exact perfect moment, and Clemons nails it, the painful realization of what’s happened crashing through everything and sending Susie on to her next chapter.
“Susie Searches” has a lot of good elements; it’s just frustrating when they don’t come together. As a prominent example, the sequence in which Susie finds Jesse is such a well-constructed thriller sequence that the swift shift into the social satire of what happens in the immediate aftermath is jarring, feeling like a whole other movie entirely. These are two great tastes that don’t really taste great in such close succession to each other. Perhaps a slightly longer running time could have offered moments like that more space to breathe and thus could have stood more strongly on their own. But as it is, “Susie Searches” is an enjoyable mixed bag of disparate elements that works more often than not, largely thanks to the strength of its endearing lead.