'Susie Searches' review: True crime podcasts get a darkly funny reckoning 
If you love "Only Murders In the Building," keep an eye out for this TIFF gem.

True crime podcasts have swiftly gone from a fringe hobby to a booming business, spurring not only a slew of shows, much merch, and a hit TV comedy series, but also a lot of questions about the ethics of civilians poking their noses into real-life tragedies. Everyone wants to be a hero. But what lengths might one go to get there? This is the winsome yet disturbing journey at the center of Susie Searches

Kiersey Clemons stars as Susie Wallis, a socially awkward college student with a mind for solving mysteries. Naturally, she has her own true crime podcast called Susie Searches, so when fellow student/meditation influencer Jesse (Alex Wolff) goes missing, her interest in cracking the case isn't exactly selfless. If she finds the internet-adored victim, she and her podcast could score the validation she desperately craves. Whether she's squeezing the sheriff (Jim Gaffigan) for clues, eying a convenient creep (Ken Marino) as a suspect, or scouting out evidence, Susie is on a mission to save the day…and promote herself. 

Forget the hardscrabble detectives of film noir; Susie has more in common with Oliver Putnam than she does Sam Spade. Rather than a gun and a trench coat, she carries a big smile smacked with colorful braces and a disarming demeanor that tends to make people underestimate her. She seems childish for a college student and ridiculous as an investigator. But! Plot twist: Susie swiftly discovers the missing student. So, just when you think you've fallen into the cozy stroll of a comfort crime watch, Susie Searches unearths new clues and tantalizing twists. 

Susie is our chipper tour guide through her yarn wall of conspiracy theories, suspects, and kidnapping drama. However, as she grows closer to finding Jesse, she learns not everything — or everyone — is as they seem. Like Only Murders in the Building, this independent comedy is popping with colorful characters brought to life by chaotically charismatic performers. 

Clemons, who has earned praise for tough girl turns in Dope and Sweetheart, plays a plucky oddball with aplomb. Wolff, who horrified in Hereditary, proves a terrific foil as the almost annoyingly zen Jesse. David Walton and Jim Gaffigan add a bit of grit as a pair of world-weary officers who find Susie equal parts pesky and peculiar. Ken Marino is smartly cast as an aggressive fast food joint manager who seems like a funhouse mirror version of his Party Down fool. And Rachel Sennott (Shiva Baby, Bodies Bodies Bodies) is a sparkling scene-stealer as a snotty mean girl who has no time but plenty of side-eye for our perky protagonist. 

Co-writer/helmer Sophie Kargman makes her feature directorial debut with this charming comedy, which is based on her first short film. In 2020's "Susie Searches," she also starred as the brace-faced sleuth. However, in re-imaging the conceit for a feature-length film, she and William Day Frank have smartly pivoted to build a string of reveals that keeps the macabre thrills coming. Admittedly, these jolts can make the movie feel episodic, leading me to wonder if they'd initially conceived of this as a web series or TV show. In the right headspace, this uneven ride can feel like binge-watching an addictive limited series. And, frankly, I value the rough edges when they come with such unexpected fun. 

For the first act, Susie Searches runs the risk of feeling dated, presenting an amateur detective in the guileless light of literal kids stuff, like Harriet the Spy or Scooby Doo. At this point, we've been so glutted with crime shows that this tact feels tired. However, as Susie solves her mystery, the movie moves into motivations, urging the audience to reconsider their heroine, to re-examine the clues, and to question whether what we want is justice or just a good story.

Kargman and Day weave together a deceptively chipper tone with a cynical thread and an appetite for tension for a finale that is outrageous and rewarding. A bright color palette and a score of playful xylophone music knowingly collides with grim content and an alarming reflection of how social media can function — for better but mostly for worse — when a true crime tale becomes national news. 

All of this earnestness and energy is intoxicating, whether coming from the score, the flurry of internet graphics, a penchant for split-screen presentations, or Clemons's direct-address declarations, which radiate with try-hard podcast voice. Even during its bumpiest bits, Susie Searches is a smartly savage and satisfying ride. 

Susie Searches made its world premiere at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival in the Discovery slate.


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