Susie Wallis (Kiersey Clemons) has never met a mystery she couldn’t solve. At least not when it comes to those that populate the crime books her mother (Jammie Patton’s Anne) read to her as a child. It got to the point where she wondered if they should stop reading them altogether, but Susie refused. She didn’t care that she always guessed the culprit. All she cared about was spending time with Mom. So when Anne’s MS diagnosis advanced enough to take away her speech, Susie took over reading duties to keep the tradition alive. And she even took things one step further by choosing to make her mother’s wish come true: using her knack for literary detective work to do good in the world and become famous.
Unlike her college’s quasi-celebrity Jessie (Alex Wolff), however, you can’t just post something online and become an overnight sensation. He’s a confident white man oozing charisma as he stumbles his way through what he calls “meditation” videos pulling thousands of views. She’s a socially awkward Black woman with braces who’s older than everyone around her (nursing her mother while working means she can only devote enough study time for part-time student status) and started a well-researched deep-dive podcast into cold cases that only gets spam comments. A shrewd problem solver like Susie can see the angles necessary to turn things around, though. All it takes is a hook. And what better draw is there than Jessie himself? When he goes missing, she pivots to figuring out his whereabouts.
Director Sophie Kargman and screenwriter William Day Frank’s (based on their short film of the same name) Susie Searches quickly moves from expository build-up to this central hunt as a result. And what might seem altruistic at first gradually devolves into full-blown avarice. Because Susie’s motivations aren’t pure. She’s not doing this because she cares about Jessie’s well-being (although he is cute). She’s doing it because she wants to piggyback off his notoriety. The reason’s simple: Susie is all but invisible to everyone but her mother. The sheriff’s department (David Walton’s Deputy Graham and Jim Gaffigan’s Sheriff Loggins) see her as a weirdly intrusive intern. Classmates as a curve-breaker. And co-workers (Rachel Sennott’s Jillian) as a pariah. Doing this one thing could change her entire life.
At what cost, though? The instant one falls down the slippery slope of pursuing celebrity rather than letting it find them is the instant they become a slave to the process regardless of where it leads. Susie’s choices ignite a domino effect of darkly comic consequences that threaten to consume her soul if there’s enough of one left to save once she sells it for the allure of national publicity. She’s not alone either. The president of her college (Geoffrey Owens) loves the exposure and becomes her de facto publicist to get as much press (“don’t forget to mention our ranking”) as possible. While the new fame (she does find Jesse) makes it so she’s suddenly the most visible person in town, however, not everyone is fully sold.
It becomes a game of opportunists and skeptics. While Andrews and Susie’s boss Edgar Cabot (Ken Marino) love that her expanded profile expands theirs too, others are less excited. When Jillian gains nothing she doubles down with the ridicule to remind Susie she’s still the socially inept ghost from before. She’s still her social inferior. Sheriff Loggins may appear bumbling, but he knows something isn’t quite right once his sleepy town gets mired in a sudden spate of tragedies. And what about Jessie? Here’s a guy who already had organic fame. Now its expanded because of his trauma rather than his air-headed charm. Things start feeling exploitative rather than educational. His story was supposed to help save lives, not be wielded for clout (Wolff is very good here).
Susie Searches is thus a quirky look at the destructive nature of popularity and the collateral damage that results when its preservation becomes more important than being “good.” I would question whether it’s able to sustain its initial enjoyment level, though—the whole is more cutely biting than uproariously funny, and such tone can prove tiring if the narrative doesn’t find a new gear to drive things forward. When it’s just Susie having to confront the reality that her choices have sent her into a freefall necessitating an embracement of the unethical, things get stale no matter how endearing or effective the characterizations prove. And Anne becoming non-verbal seems a missed opportunity once Susie’s prime suspect is found innocent. Only she knows her daughter is never wrong.
Thus we’re left in limbo. Susie operates out of pragmatism, not malice. We can’t “enjoy” her choices as much as wince in anticipation of her inevitable comeuppance because she’s not an anti-hero. We’re not supposed to give her the benefit of the doubt. By not having Anne as a logical point of conflict, however, there’s no one else to sustainably root for. Maybe Loggins or Jessie’s suspicious friend Ray (Isaac Powell), but they become more red herring or potential victim than any real adversarial threat. And maybe that’s the point. As a satirical look at our era’s growing fascination with celebrity in the digital age, there’s something to the fact that we are often the orchestrators of our own demise since shortcuts don’t need strong foundations.
So while not without its flaws, there is still a lot to like about what Kargman puts on-screen. It showcases hubris incarnate as it destroys a “good” person by pushing her into corners that demand “bad” decisions to be made. Clemons is great in the role too. There’s always a keen sense of artifice that contradicts the way so many others see her smile as a sign of purity rather than a mask hiding the fact that her intelligence has corrupted her moral compass. Wolff excels by being her antithesis—morality refusing to bend to stardom. I like that it all gets darker as it continues and plays with earlier set-ups in perhaps surprising ways, but the pacing does leave a bit to be desired. A solid, imperfect debut.
Susie Searches premiered at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival.