Ever since her breakthrough role in Dope, Kiersey Clemons has pretty much always been irresistible. It doesn’t matter the film or the role, her perky spirit and wide smile are enough to charm any audience, and she has done a fantastic job of choosing roles that accentuate this gift. She does so again, albeit with a heavy dose of subversion, in Susie Searches, an expansion of Sophie Kargman’s short about a Nancy Drew-esque true crime enthusiast who solves crimes in her spare time. Clemons is winning as ever in the title role and cleverly plays with our expectations, although awkward tone and execution hinder the film from being more than it turns out to be.
The opening act of Susie Searches is so much fun, so sharp and silly at the same time, we think we might’ve stumbled into the next Enola Holmes. We learn that Susie, a bit of a misfit college student with bright blue braces, has always had a knack for figuring out the end of any mystery novel. Her mother, who would later be stricken with MS, would read these books to young Susie and rarely get beyond the first pages before the young girl had it all figured out. Later, Susie would use this gift to launch a true crime podcast called, what else, Susie Searches, that nobody listens to. Her internship with the local sheriff (Jim Gaffigan) helps pass the time, and so does her part-time job working with a weirdo boss (Ken Marino) and mean co-worker (Rachel Sennott).
But Susie is clearly lonely and dying for attention. When a popular local boy named Jesse (Alex Wolff) goes missing, Susie puts her sleuthing skills to the test in hopes of finding him; the plan is that this would be the case that makes her popular.
In short order, Susie does just that. Not only is the town grateful, welcoming her as a hero, but so is Jesse. The dopey Youtuber can’t stop fawning over Susie for saving his life, and soon they become very good friends. But that’s when the movie takes a wild tonal shift that flips everything on its head, adding something sinister to Susie’s rise to investigative glory.
To be clear, this twist by Kargman and co-writer William Day Frank is tremendous, and totally threw my unsuspecting ass for a loop. Having never been acquainted with Susie Searches or its short predecessor, the turns it took it took were legitimately shocking. And Clemons rolls with every single one of them, somehow keeping Susie likeable even as shadows begin to creep in around her motives. The film explores the depths of a person’s loneliness, our need for celebrity, fame, and acceptance.
But the tonal swerves are uneven, and Kargman never manages to maintain steady control. A cutesy atmosphere lingers throughout, like something out of Sweet Valley High, and it undermines the darker elements’ impact. There’s a way to keep the joyful tone of the film’s early scenes while introducing some cracks in the foundation, but Susie Searches can’t put the clues together to do it.
While Clemons and Wolff are committed and even excellent in their performances, Gaffigan, Sennott, and Marino are unforgivably wasted. Sennott in particular, such a comedic force in Shiva Baby, Bodies Bodies Bodies, and the upcoming film Bottoms, is given a venomous role seemingly perfect for her. And yet the script offers up little to bite into. The finale shows just how far Susie Searches has fallen, with one character being transformed in such an over-the-top way it makes absolutely no storyline sense, and serves only to distract us from a proper resolution for Susie. As light and genuine as it started, you’d need more than a magnifying glass to find that Susie Searches by the time the credits roll.
Susie Searches opens on July 28th.