Now and then, many of us have probably wondered how we survived our childhoods, since so many kids firmly believe they’re indestructible and nothing truly bad will ever happen to them. Most of us outgrow this phase and sometimes marvel at the chances we so blithely took in younger days. And you don’t even have to have been particularly daring for bad things to happen anyway — you never know when a freak accident might be lurking around the corner just waiting to get you. In The Girl Who Wasn’t Missing, Echo (Kai Lanette) roams freely through an urban wilderness that, inevitably, claims a terrible price.
Echo seems to live in a less-prosperous area of southern California, judging from the palm trees and the general air of self-absorbed disinterest that seems quite common around there. Certainly Echo’s parents don’t seem concerned about their daughter’s habit of wandering alone through the neighborhood, even though she’s only 15 and blissfully unaware that there are bad people out there. I don’t know if Echo’s mother is perhaps a little more caring, but her father (Rob Dale) is a complete jerk who heartlessly abandons his daughter when she needs him the most. I’d call him worse, but I try to keep things PG-13 here.
Left homeless and with nowhere to turn, Echo drifts into a pattern of life on the streets, or rather existing on the streets. Always a loner, there’s no one left now to care whether she lives or dies, and even Echo herself seems largely indifferent to that question. She does what she has to do to survive out of habit, scrounging for places to sleep and subsisting on convenience store food. She may not be missing in the official sense — who would have bothered to file a police report? — but she’s still gone in every way that matters, moving mechanically through her days. There’s a police officer (Jeremy Williams) and a friend of hers (Jerrell Gray) who just might notice if she stopped showing up one day, but aside from them she might almost not exist.
This may sound like a bleak, quietly horrifying film, but I’ve barely even scratched the surface of that. The visuals are raw and unflinching, with no grim detail of Echo’s daily life overlooked. Just her struggle to keep herself relatively clean is powerful and painful — a simple shower is an almost unimaginable treat for her, and a clean place to sleep a rare privilege.
Lanette does a superb job portraying the neglected child who transforms into a child of the streets, hiding whatever might remain of herself behind brittle sarcasm and bravado. Her new life both ages her and keeps her a child in many ways, wandering alone and lonely through her new world in much the same fashion she did through the old, accepting both with the same resignation.
Done in documentary style, this expertly crafted film brutally reminds us that the true plight of the homeless and the lost is infinitely worse than most fiction ever allows us to see, and that those who lead these twilight lives are as real and human as any of us.