A film shot in 2006 and released in 2011 gains fame on the short video platform TikTok – as well as immense notoriety because adult critics are outraged. But what’s behind Megan is Missing? Our review will tell you.
OT: Megan is Missing (USA 2011)
The Plot Summary
14-year-old Megan Stewart (Rachel Quinn) is very popular at her school, while Amy Herman (Amber Perkins), who is a year younger, is more reserved, shy and therefore unpopular. Nevertheless, they are best friends: When they don’t see each other, they chat via text or webcam. At a party, they have very different experiences with the opposite sex and Megan and Amy start to tease each other. But the two quickly mend the rift between them. Soon afterwards, Megan meets a guy on the internet for whom she develops feelings. Amy is suspicious – and in a very tragic way, it turns out that she has the right instincts…
Megan is Missing Movie Meaning
In 2006, during the height of the found-footage horror genre, director and author Michael Goi shot “Megan is Missing”. The project, which cost 35,000 dollars and was filmed in just eight and a half days, initially failed to find a distributor. In 2011, the small US label Anchor Bay took on the title and gave it a limited theatrical release and a DVD release. In reviews, it was mostly slated as a crudely produced, not particularly memorable film for the bargain bin, although there were also isolated, cautiously positive reviews. The title was not granted any significant audience attention – even a ban on the film in New Zealand hardly drew any attention to “Megan is Missing”.
Nine years later: “Megan is Missing” has become a phenomenon on the short video platform TikTok. It started with a few people who discovered the movie – and their agitated reactions inspired other users to watch the movie and film their own reactions. All of a sudden, this movie spread like wildfire – initially in a primarily young, female TikTok echo chamber alone. But then “Megan is Missing” conquered the iTunes download charts in the USA (which means that many of the TikTok users got the movie legally – commendable, dear movie fan offspring!), which aroused the curiosity of people outside this bubble. And then this highly publicized curiosity turned into a highly publicized controversy: Numerous critics (primarily male, in their 30s to 40s) threw superlatives around. “Megan is Missing” was berated as inhuman, as disgusting and disgusting, as unforgivable, irresponsible trash – and nobody, nobody should watch it. Too bad: How could you spark more interest in a movie by lecturing in capital letters and absolutes that you shouldn’t watch it and that everyone who gives this movie attention should be ashamed of themselves? And once these colleagues have written themselves into a rage, they have at the same time also scolded the TikTok teenagers, who should be ashamed of themselves for watching such a voyeuristic movie and making exaggerated, gimmicky reaction videos.
“How could you spark more interest in a movie by lecturing in capital letters and absolutes that you shouldn’t watch it and that everyone who brings attention to it should be ashamed?”
Well, well, well, enough fighting polemic with polemic. My point is that the path that “Megan is Missing” has taken so far is fascinating. And you can probably tell from the previous paragraph that I can only roll my eyes at some of the comments about “Megan is Missing”. I would now like to explain in more detail why I can understand the fascination that “Megan is Missing” exerts on young people and why the film can still be criticized.
Unconsciously aimed at TikTok teens
“Megan is Missing” is a convincing found-footage film (especially to the unaccustomed eye of this subgenre) that consistently follows its premise of an amateurish compilation of raw footage. Since it is about a kidnapping case and the danger that strange internet acquaintances pose to teenagers, and not about a supernatural horror, “Megan is Missing” is aimed precisely at the subliminally simmering fears of the core TikTok teen target group. Goi sets the film up as a genuine slow burner, and even if it does tread too much on the spot at times, it is effective how he calmly introduces the two main characters Megan and Amy before illustrating the search for clues in the titular missing persons case – and lets this escalate gruesomely. In this way, Goi creates a bond with the plausibly sketched adolescents, who are in the process of testing boundaries but still approach things with childlike naivety and innocent expectation.
As soon as the extreme situations occur, their painfulness can dig its claws into the metaphorical flesh of the audience all the more efficiently – especially the part of the audience that has neither dealt with the world of found-footage horror, the taboo-breaking horror cinema of the late 2000s and early 2010s, which has subsided again since 2011, nor with the potential dangers of the internet. In other words: “Megan is Missing” is (unplanned!) made to push the buttons of teenagers in 2020, who firstly (if at all) experience other horror styles and secondly use the web as a matter of course in today’s social media overload. In fact, Goi says he intended the movie to be a wake-up call for parents, and used to give warnings when showing the movie to teen audiences about what they should be prepared for. When the director and writer got wind that “Megan is Missing” was now being consumed in excess by an unprepared teen audience due to the TikTok hype, he emphasized that it was not for children or early teens. And he reiterated his “content warnings” publicly and emphatically – and, as best he could, in a non-promotional way. But rather along the lines of: “If you’re already feeling queasy by point X, you’d better stop.”
Megan is Missing is (unplanned!) made to push the buttons of teenagers in 2020 who firstly (if at all) witness other horror styles and secondly, in today’s social media overload, take the web for granted.
The fact that “Megan is Missing” is so gripping is also due to the very unaffected, authentic acting of Rachel Quinn as Megan and Amber Perkins, who sometimes seems slightly artificial but is nevertheless believable overall. Quinn leaves a lasting impression as a traumatized teenager who tries to validate herself by overemphasizing her self-confidence and who fluctuates between Lolitaesque and childishly awkward and shy in her webcam flirtation. Perkins, on the other hand, makes Amy’s insecurity and down-to-earthness tangible – and above all masters the difficult parts of the film by expressing Amy’s anguish realistically and therefore extremely uncomfortably. Against this backdrop, the fact that she seems a little stilted in some of her monologues is a rather succinct point of criticism. When Amy fears for her friend in the second half of the film and Goi creates incidental moments of suspense (either by scattering narrative suspicions about what might have happened or by threatening potential disaster in the background), he does so without nudging the audience in the right direction. “Megan is Missing” dispenses with a score and abrupt sound effects, which means that the film refuses to use simple jump scares. The fact that it startles young people just because a small thing happens silently and barely recognizably is a testament to the film’s engaging narrative consistency, despite its flaws.
Is “Megan is Missing” a movie I would recommend for twelve-year-olds? No, not at all! Are twelve-year-olds currently watching it (especially in the USA) because of the TikTok hype? Yes, they do. But so far I haven’t heard any shocked voices talking about the broken youth protection system in the United States, where eight-year-olds are theoretically allowed to watch “Saw 3D” – instead, “Megan is Missing” is being explicitly scandalized. As the film has never had a German release, we can only speculate what the German youth protection authorities would think of it – but I would guess that it would be given a 16+ FSK rating in Germany. Although this may seem far-fetched at first (after all, it is classified as “objectionable” in New Zealand – just like “Alexandre Aja’s Maniac”, “A Serbian Film”, “Hostel 2” and “The Human Centipede II (Full Sequence)”), I am not making this assessment out of thin air: In Australia, “Morgan is Missing” is rated 15+, as are “Borat Anschluss Moviefilm”, “The Wolf of Wall Street”, “Hangover”, “Whiplash”, “Ted” and the primetime medical series “Grey’s Anatomy”, among others. And even in Mexico, the film is expected to be seen by 15-year-olds – putting it on a par with “Terminator 2: Day of Reckoning”, “Mad Max: Fury Road”, “Snowpiercer”, “Rain Man”, “The Breakfast Club” and the romantic comedy “Forever Single?”…
My release reference for “Megan is Missing”, however, would be both film adaptations of Stieg Larsson’s “Blinded”. Because in both bestseller adaptations as well as in the found footage film by the later “American Horror Story” and “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina” director, the worst moment is easy to spot: It’s the minute-long rape scene in each. What all three films also have in common is that the directors endeavor to make this despicable act of sexual violence look unpleasant without resorting to graphic violence, which could have the opposite effect as a macabre spectacle. However, Michael Goi is more consistent than his colleagues Niels Arden Oplev and David Fincher, whose approaches have sparked discussions as to whether the scenes were necessary and might still look too aesthetic and therefore potentially trivializing. Goi’s direction, meanwhile, is dry and deliberately unspectacular: he focuses on the victim’s pain-distorted face with little distance, whose screams and whimpers drown out any sounds of pleasure from the perpetrator. Unlike in “Blinded”, “The Last House on the Left”, “Evil Dead”, “The Hills Have Eyes” or the mainstream mega-success “Game of Thrones”, there is not a single glimpse, however fleeting, of the perpetrator enjoying the act or the woman’s exposed body. Everything that could give the masses sensuality in such a scene (possibly taken out of context) is missing. Nevertheless, it is not so dramatized (it is, after all, a poorly lit, unattractive shot) that it would develop a salivating, voyeuristic character.
“Goi’s direction is dry and deliberately unspectacular: he focuses on the victim’s pain-distorted face with little distance, whose screams and whimpers drown out any sounds of pleasure from the perpetrator.”
Instead, the merciless scene goes to the core – and after it, the terror is not over. The protagonist’s fear continues, but now the events are followed from a distance, which raises questions about what is going on and thus raises concern for the victim. Is that repulsive? Yes. But that’s exactly what it should be: If you think you have to do a rape scene (and there has been a lively, justified debate for years about whether you should answer “yes” to that), a thoroughly harrowing scene that is nonetheless not explicit is at least unmistakable. Unlike the many “Game of Thrones” scenes, for example, in which the camera glides over the exposed, flatteringly illuminated bodies of beautiful women, so that these scenes can soon be shared and ogled unproblematically in TV forums. There is nothing trivializing or inviting about the “Megan is Missing” sequence – a verdict that numerous genre classics are unable to attach to themselves, in which this unforgivable crime can sometimes seem “crass!” or cinematically impressive (“How did they do that?!”), so that you can still munch your popcorn unruffled.
Where I do see flaws in “Megan is Missing”, however, is in the dialog: Goi’s attempt to capture the language of teenagers (in the late 2000s) seems cramped, especially in the party scenes and during banter and conflicts – and the wooden acting of the supporting cast doesn’t help at all to conceal this. And the fact that Goi portrays Megan as sexually very open, brash and adventurous, while at the same time attaching to her a history as a victim of sexual violence, will catch some people on the wrong foot in this kitchen-sink psychological realization. And I wouldn’t blame them. While there is a possibility of interpretation that Megan’s gleefully told, terrifying summer camp anecdote about being seduced by a Kevin Spacey-looking counselor at the age of ten to her supposed delight is a lie. To impress her friend. Or to distract from her traumatic past, which is revealed shortly afterwards. However, both Goi’s script and Quinn’s play leave question marks over this – and this ambiguity can leave an irritating, exploitative aftertaste.
“Goi’s attempt to capture the language of teenagers (in the late 2000s) seems cramped, especially in the party scenes and during banter and conflicts – and the wooden acting of the supporting cast doesn’t help at all to conceal this.”
I am similarly ambivalent about the interspersed news reports. In them, Goi satirizes tendentious media reporting, for example by having a presenter repeatedly emphasize how pretty and popular Megan was, before she coldly remarks after a long report that a little boy is also missing. These scenes are written with bite and yet are presented so straightforwardly that they could be mistaken for real (local) news. This gives the film a temporary satirical pizzazz and underlines its cautionary moral, but their sarcastic, dry humor makes them seem like a foreign body.
Furthermore, Goi overstretches his film somewhat, for example by showing meaningless surveillance camera footage four times in succession or by letting the party scene run longer than necessary for the storytelling and characterization, so that it degenerates into an end in itself. And as with many found-footage films, the question of inner authenticity occasionally arises: would this person have captured this moment with a camcorder? Some scenes (especially webcam chats) are also (brace yourself!) too high quality for the standards of 2007. And in the final act, which gets under your skin and lasts around 20 minutes, the sound is a touch too clear and too loud if you want to buy it as completely unedited material – which is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the clarity and acoustic impact of the protagonists’ wailing, screaming and suffering make these scenes more oppressive and disturbing. On the other hand, Goi can be accused of applying more acoustic weight to the shock effect than to the image composition. However, this is splitting hairs, as the oppressive, distressing effect of these scenes clearly prevails.
Conclusion: “Megan is Missing” is an unpolished found-footage horror that follows its premise quite consistently and whose finale shows no restraint in terms of content. However, director and author Michael Goi makes an effort (as far as possible with this topic) to achieve a responsible staging: heinous atrocities are not visualized here with show value, but in an unpleasant way. Like every horror film, “Megan is Missing” ventures into depths that are by no means suitable for everyone – no one should be confronted with this movie if it could open up wounds. But it remains a mystery why a movie that also deals with horrific crimes in a repulsive way is now causing older horror fans to get as upset as cultural watchdogs once got for years about uninhibited depictions of violence with the extra cool factor.
“Megan is Missing” is available as a download on various VOD platforms and can be watched in full length on YouTube.