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Susie Searches

Sophie Kargman’s “Susie Searches” is a movie in search of its audience. The story follows Susie (Kiersey Clemons), a plucky misfit college student who runs her own largely unnoticed true crime podcast between classes and works at an on-campus burger joint. She’s got a knack for solving mysteries, or so she tells us. At first glance, this movie feels like it’s made for a younger audience. The dialogue is cute and bouncy but simplistic. The other characters are fairly silly caricatures, from Susie’s weird boss Edgar (Ken Marino), her dismissive coworker Jillian (Rachel Sennott), and the bumbling cops led by Sheriff Loggins (Jim Gaffigan). But “Susie Searches” is no “Nancy Drew” or “Harriet the Spy.” The movie has a twist that pulls it off-course, leaving more questions than answers. Is it still fun for younger audiences if the plot takes such a sharp dark turn? Is it fun for anyone? 

Co-written by Kargman and William Day Frank, “Susie Searches” starts strong but loses its way after our heroine solves her biggest case yet: the disappearance of local campus heartthrob Jesse Wilcox (Alex Wolff), a meditation YouTube star whose good looks and kind words make him a favorite of just about everyone he meets. Before the case, we see that Susie does not enjoy such adoration. She’s lonely and rejected by classmates, caring for her ailing mother by herself, working hard on a podcast practically no one listens to, and stops by the sheriff’s office to help but is mostly brushed off. 

When Susie solves the case, her world changes. She becomes famous overnight, and how people talk to her also changes. The dean of her college glowingly refers to her as his star pupil as he readies her for the cameras. She nervously smiles as reporters (all in the worst stock impersonations of how journalists behave) ask her questions about how she rescued Jesse from an unknown kidnapper. But the bubbly, feel-good underdog feelings are short-lived. This mostly happens within the first half hour of the movie’s brief runtime, leaving the rest to flounder through the idea that maybe Susie isn’t everything she seems. 

Kargman’s feature debut expands on her 2020 short “Susie Searches,” in which she played the braces-clad aspiring sleuth. However, what might have made a strong premise for a short does not translate to a foolproof feature. As a director, she plays with other thriller visuals—like freeze frames, intense close-ups, and split diopter shots—increasing their use towards the climactic end. But it feels at odds with the tone of the movie's first third, that of a young detective solving her first big mystery. It’s as if the two parts have been Frankensteined together, and it doesn’t work. 

As Susie, Clemons does her best with the conflicting material, swinging from an all-smiles people pleaser, a determined podcaster narrating her latest theories, to a panicked-stricken observer. For the most part, the rest of the cast is one-note despite their talents. Wolff plays his character as cute and charming, leaning on Susie after his rescue and as the mystery grows more sinister. Gaffigan’s sheriff reluctantly opens up to Susie and seems incompetent until a pivotal moment. Sennott is unfortunately shortchanged in her part as Susie’s disgruntled coworker. Marino’s arc is even more inexplicable, almost like a role that would get made fun of on “Party Down.” 

Part of the novelty of “Susie Searches” lies in how it reflects the growing popularity of true crime podcasts. In June, the Pew Research Center confirmed what many listeners of true crime podcasts already knew: it’s the most popular podcast genre, and the majority of the audience are women, at a rate of almost 2-to-1. The third season of “Only Murders in the Building,” which uses a podcast in its first season to explore crimes in an apartment building in New York City, premieres next month. Numerous shows and docu-series have spun off of popular podcast series or even launched with an accompanying podcast for further listening. Although “Susie Searches” incorporates much of the language and tropes you’d hear in just about any scripted true crime podcast, it doesn’t seem to take kindly to the form itself. It takes a more cynical view of how those shows have influenced their hosts' mind, possibly even condemning them for what happens. It’s as if the script views her passion project as a gateway to bad behavior, which adds to the feeling of disconnect from the first leg of the movie. If “Susie Searches” wanted to critique the true-crime podcast trend, it could have done so more directly. For now, we have a movie at odds with itself and its main character.

Now playing in theaters. 

Monica Castillo

Monica Castillo is a critic, journalist, programmer, and curator based in New York City. She is the Senior Film Programmer at the Jacob Burns Film Center and a contributor to RogerEbert.com.

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Film Credits

Susie Searches movie poster

Susie Searches (2023)

Rated NR

105 minutes

Cast

Kiersey Clemons as Susie

Alex Wolff as Jesse

Jim Gaffigan as Sheriff Loggins

Ken Marino as Edgar Cabot

David Walton as Deputy Graham

Isaac Powell as Ray Garcia

Rachel Sennott as Jillian

Geoffrey Owens as President Andrews

Alex Moffat as Hayden Powers

Dolly Wells as Professor Gallagher

Kat Foster as Dianne Seleck

Jared Gilman as Jed

Director

Writer (story)

Writer

Cinematographer

Editor

Composer

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