Part crackpot mystery, part comic-book fable, The Missing Girl is a low-key indie charmer that wears its big heart on its awkward sleeve. Writer-director A.D. Calvo gives his characters plenty of room to breathe, and the result is an intimate, though somewhat languid affair. The real revelation here is Robert Longstreet, whose mopey shop owner fascinates and frustrates like some Harvey Pekar doppelganger. Patience and persistence will be richly rewarded by this observant character study.
Mort Colvins (Longstreet) is the embodiment of ‘gruff but lovable.’ Each day this middle-aged sad-sack trudges into his store, Mort’s Comics & More, and toils over treasured trinkets and limited-edition comics. At night, he retires to his lonely apartment, listening to pre-recorded affirmations on his clunky cassette player. “You are a worthy guy. Do things that make you happy,” he implores himself; advice he obviously never heeds.
Into his world comes a young, attractive artist named Ellen (Alexia Rasmussen). Ellen is the type of artist who uses the surrounding mundanity as fodder for her comics. She sees a delicate beauty in everything… even Mort. “I can’t figure you out,” she whispers as she thumbs through Mort’s bizarre book collection. “Are you really a dweeb or just hiding?” She may be a lowly clerk at Mort’s store now, but she seems destined to outgrow his comfortable cage. Indeed, Ellen was Mort’s emotional superior on the day she was born.
It’s a credit to A.D. Calvo’s intelligent script, along with Rasmussen and Longstreet’s instinctive performances, that a universe could seemingly exist where Ellen and Mort are lovers. Of course, Mort’s predisposition for isolation makes this utterly impossible. It’s only with Ellen’s abrupt departure that Mort is fully engaged. Now there is a mystery to solve; the possibilities for messy emotional entanglements have been removed.
Calvo’s love for the world of comics is evident. There are echoes of Ghost World and American Splendor everywhere. Though The Missing Girl never approaches those understated masterpieces, it engenders the same empathy and quiet dignity. In Mort, Calvo perfectly encapsulates the unrequited yearning of the introvert. He understands that things get more interesting when the conversation stops and people really start talking.
Visually, Calvo throws plenty of comic book flourishes into the mix, as well. Split screens and multiple panels are used to frame different character perspectives or disparate moments in the timeline. Each segment is individually titled to reflect Ellen’s status in the story. Ellen graduates from “The New Girl” to the “The Missing Girl” as Mort’s imagination fills in the sordid details of her mysterious disappearance. This isn’t a typical detective story, though. This mystery is about finding meaning rather than breaking the big case. That it’s a mystery of Mort’s own creation is the ironic twist that makes The Missing Girl such a sublime treat.
The pacing, however, is a bit more problematic. While the first act adroitly establishes the dysfunctional rhythms of Mort’s life and his unusual relationship with Ellen, the second act struggles to find its purpose. Mort spends a good chunk of time aimlessly wandering around the sleepy little town of New London, and several scenes with his family feel perfunctory. More problematic is the emergence of Mort’s old High School acquaintance, Skippy (Eric Ladin), who detracts from our time with Mort and Ellen. Skippy simply isn’t a compelling character, which further slows a story that’s already moving at a glacial pace.
Still, The Missing Girl draws its power from an accumulation of moments rather than specific powerhouse scenes. Much of this building tension traces back to the performances of Longstreet and Rasmussen. It’s also nice to see familiar faces like Thomas Jay Ryan, Shirley Knight, and Kevin Corrigan in supporting roles, though they’re mostly glorified cameo appearances. Sonja Sohn does well playing the role of “the girl who is obviously infatuated with the hero but he’s too oblivious to notice.” It’s a staple of loser indie rom-coms and Sohn plays it with the appropriate organic subtlety.
The Missing Girl is a bit too episodic and lethargic to break out, but it packs more than enough indie charm to be a winner. It’s an honest, intimate look into the lives of people who too often fade into the background. They think a great deal but say very little. The nerdy guy in the corner is usually more interesting than the blowhard who is holding court. Thanks to movies like The Missing Girl, they can occasionally have their moment in the spotlight.
Fantastic Fest takes place from Sept 24 – Oct 1. Visit the festival’s official website for more information.