EDITOR’S NOTE: This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, films like “Susie Searches” might not exist.
One of the best tricks a caper movie can pull is getting its viewers to root for the criminal. Typically, we’re pining for the righteous downfall, not a lucky escape, from the long arm of the law. Thanks to a very clever and uncommon twist that drops early on, Susie Searches has you, for a good while anyway, shaking your pom-poms and crossing your fingers for the guilty party. Riding that scandalous plot wave makes for an entertaining yarn of dark comedy.
The Susie of Susie Searches is Wade College student Susie Wallis, played by Kiersey Clemons of Hearts Beat Loud and Somebody I Used to Know. In person, Susie is seen as a wallflower weirdo with her frizzy hair, frumpy wardrobe, and a wide smile adorned by colorful braces. She makes ends meet working at the campus burger joint with the sardonic and dismissive Jillian (Rachel Sennott of Bodies Bodies Bodies) for their semi-creepy and detail-obsessed boss Edgar Cabot (Ken Marino, currently of TV’s The Other Two). Wallflower or not, Susie impresses her professors with her enthusiastic disposition and good grades while her classmates treat her as invisible.
The enterprising young woman carries that unfazed perkiness over into a new interning job as a file clerk at the Wade County Sheriff’s office. There, she is supervised by the mild-mannered Sheriff Loggins (comedian Jim Gaffigan, leaning on his fuddy-duddy nature) and protein shake-pounding Deputy Graham (David Walton of Bad Moms). For Susie, she sees this as a glamorous gig and it puts her in an ideal place to feed her personal and creative obsession.
Inspired by her job at the sheriff’s office, Susie’s mantras become “to solve the unsolvable” and “bring resolution to the most haunting mysteries.” Over the years, she’s had a knack for guessing the endings of novels with her ailing mother (Jammie Patton of Compersion) since she was a kid. Her goals and empowerment to address local cold cases—as slightly warped as they may be—are as adorable as they are ambitious. You have to love her initiative and spirit, and Kiersey Clemons, through voiceover and body language, dials up the nerdy charm.
Over the years, Susie has become obsessed with true crime and created a podcast matching the title of the movie. When “Susie Searches” is recording, the introvert turns into an extrovert eager to get her voice out there and be heard. Her dream is that the show takes off and lassoes a big enough audience for monetization to be used to get her mother better homecare. Embarrassingly, the trouble is that virtually no one is listening to “Susie Searches” or following the show on social media (a common plight of the DIY podcaster, let me tell you).
All of that absent attention changes when Susie Wallis serendipitously rescues her missing classmate Jesse Wilcox (Coming Through the Rye and Hereditary’s Alex Wolff, currently seen in Oppenheimer)—a holistic himbo and with a popular viral YouTube meditation vlog—from being being held captive in a basement of a empty property owned by his shady real estate magnate uncle. Cracking the missing persons case makes Susie a local celebrity and a promotional ambassador for the Wade College president (The Cosby Show’s Geoffrey Owens). The victory also raises her stock with Sheriff Loggins’ office, ignites her podcast audience, and lets her dote with a dreamy aura on the extremely thankful Jesse. He, like everyone else, is amazed by her successful save.
That brings Susie Searches to its advertised twist. The answer as to how seemingly dumb luck enabled Susie Wallis to pull off the hero act is the shocking revelation that she was the kidnapper of Jesse Wilcox. Queue the Dramatic Chipmunk! After weeks of surveillance and careful planning cultivated by her well of true crime research and trivia, Susie orchestrated it all, but kept a stocking cap souvenir. That mistake, inevitably, will come back to bite her as the stress of living a lie smudges her innocent exterior and erodes her regimental internal composure.
As aforementioned, there’s a stretch of Susie Searches where you side with our main character even though she’s ostensibly the villain of the story. Susie’s surprisingly really smart at both creating and solving crime that she’s a marvel to watch left to her own devices. Despite her impressive intelligence, so many people have treated her like crap. Even though she creates her own triumph— one where no one really gets hurt (at least for a while)—Susie deserves to have her specialness be seen.
Alas, that little jolt of demented buzz will not and should not last in Susie Searches. New and worse mistakes begin to pile up as she seeks to skate through getting this conundrum. Like her own facts announce, “you can be the best criminal, but you can’t outrun science.” Your rooting interests may shift, but your interest never drops. If anything, it grows because you’re in on the deception through slick dramatic irony.
This 2022 festival darling finally getting a wider release is the elongation of filmmaker-actress Sophie Kargman’s 2020 short film of the same name co-written with William David Frank (Fixation). Kargman, who played her own Susie then, found the right committed charisma from Kiersey Clemons to pass the torch to for her feature-length directorial debut. In the same vein, her concept expansion with Frank manufactures excellent little obstacles that, like Susie’s own ascension, help Susie Searches stand out from the crowd of dark comedies that dip their toe in horror motifs. No matter where allegiances sway, the shell game of evidence disposal and blame-dodging in this ingenious flip-flopping character study is a gleeful little hoot to watch.