Producers: Adam Mirels and Robbie Mirels   Director: Sophie Kargman   Screenplay: William Day Frank   Cast: Kiersey Clemons, Alex Wolff, Dolly Wells, David Walton, Rachel Sennott, Isaac Powell, Alex Moffat, Geoffrey Owens, Jared Gilman, Colby Lewis, Jammie Patton, Ellie Raine, Ken Marino and Jim Gaffigan   Distributor: Vertical

Grade: C

Sophie Kargman and William Day Frank’s expansion of their 2020 short film of the same title is a darkly comic take on the need so many lonely people feel for not just acceptance but celebrity, using today’s fascination with true-crime podcasts as a narrative springboard.  One has to credit “Susie Searches” for its willingness to focus on a character whose desperation to be noticed leads her to do destructive things, but its radical shifts in tone and perspective as it turns from sweet to sour are jarring.

The film introduces Susie Wallis as a youngster (Ellie Raine), reading detective novels along with her mother Anne (Jammie Patton) and invariably predicting the guilty party early on.  Now a supremely disciplined college student, Susie (Kiersey Clemons) is the favorite of her teachers, most notably Professor Gallagher (Dolly Wells).  She also works at the fast food joint managed by control freak Edgar Cabot (Ken Marino), her strict adherence to his demands earning the scorn of co-worker Jillian (Rachel Sennott).  And she also serves as caretaker for her mom, who’s bedridden with MS.

But despite the burdens on her, and her lack of friends, Susie maintains a chirpy, upbeat attitude, especially when engaging in her continuing passion for solving mysteries.  That explains why she’s a volunteer at the local police department, where she’s tolerated by clueless Sheriff Loggins (Jim Gaffigan) and treated with disdain by smug Deputy Graham (David Walton), and why she’s created a true-crime podcast that she devotes as much time as she can to, although it attracts about as many followers as she has friends. 

In hopes of increasing her audience, she decides to focus on a local case that’s attracted wide attention—the kidnapping of fellow student Jesse Wilcox (Alex Wolff), the son of a wealthy real estate magnate but, more importantly, the star of an online blog where he posts dreamy messages about peace, love and meditation.  Susie hones in on a suspect—Jesse’s disreputable uncle Vincent—and, by systematically inspecting the properties he owns, finds the bound and gagged Jesse in a tunnel on one of them.  Since Vincent can’t be found, it’s assumed he’s the culprit and Susie’s treated as a hero. 

The effect is electric.  Susie becomes a natural for interviews, in which she’s unfailingly humble, and she’s often accompanied in them by Jesse, who’s effusively thankful, in his customarily moony fashion.  She’s also treated as an asset by the college’s president (Geoffrey Owens), who gleefully uses the two of them as donor draws for the school. 

There’s one problem, though.  Ray Garcia (Isaac Powell), Jesse’s best friend initially introduced to Susie as a big fan, turns out to be the suspicious type, and he doesn’t give up easily.  Dealing with him takes Susie, and the movie as a whole, in an entirely new direction; the shift is extreme, and comes even earlier than the similarly shocking revelation in Hitchcock’s masterpiece of misdirection “Vertigo.”  In that film, however, the turn takes things into deeper psychological waters.  Here, it’s little more than a wicked plot contrivance, which takes us into a twisty tale of obfuscation that’s not just implausible (does no one question the logic of Susie’s investigative techniques after Vincent shows up to explode her theory?) but winds up in cheap slasher territory.  And the coda in a television studio, despite nice work from both Clemons and Wolff, seems a decidedly old-fashioned Hitchcockian twist to prove that crime doesn’t pay (think of the ending of “Frenzy”), not to mention one that makes a brainy person seem rather inept as a light-bulb suddenly goes off for a dull-witted one.

If in the end “Susie Searches” isn’t as smart as it wants to be, however, it mostly holds one’s interest despite the rough spots, especially in the third act.  That’s mostly due to Clemons, who’s captivating as a girl determined to strike a positive pose even when things don’t go according to plan and she harbors doubts about how they’ll turn out.  Wolff, on the other hand, is stuck playing a one-note character, the blissfully oblivious, empty-headed purveyor of bland bromides taken by people even dimmer than he is as a deep thinker; only at the very end does he exhibit a glimmer of perceptiveness.  Watson, Sennott, Powell and Owens are faced with trying to breathe life into even shallower figures, while Marino, as usual, goes overboard in the scenery-chewing.  Gaffigan makes the sheriff a likable doofus until, toward the close, we’re expected to accept that he’s sharper than he looks—another sudden jolt that strains credulity.

Kargman and her crew add to the narrative’s twistiness with some technical pizzazz, like a few montages crafted by editor Christine Park and some creepy cinematography by Connor Murphy.  Adam Reamer’s production design is surprisingly prosaic, though, while Jon Natchez’s score holds back when it might have italicized the action more blatantly.

“Susie Searches” is a curious hybrid, aiming for a Hitchcockian vibe seasoned with the darkly comic humor of a “Heathers.”  You can admire the attempt, but it really doesn’t come off.