A young man, Daniel, has gone missing. As his case progresses, his phone continues on, as its streams of notifications, messages and reminders trace the trail of his strange, eerie “afterlife.”
Writer-director Daniel McKee crafts a compact thriller narrative about Daniel’s disappearance, told mostly through the perspective of his iPhone. Combining notifications, smartphone footage, and shots of screens, the narrative traces Daniel’s digital footprint to follow the mystery of his absence.
The result is a ghostly, haunting story that not only creates drama and suspense around the central question of what happened to Daniel, but how we are remembered and memorialized now that our lives are increasingly digitized through social media and mobile technology.
The writing lacks conventionally portrayals of characters and storyline, with its lack of dialogue and even in-person interactions. But the film adroit uses other elements of filmmaking to continually draw interest and emotion. Its editing is tight and fast-paced, ably balancing the flow of information with its larger aesthetic goals, and the sound design and ambient score add to the film’s eerie, uneasy atmosphere.
The film’s major artistic achievement is how it dramatizes absence. In the vacuum of a missing person’s disappearance, bits of information and communication fill the void, and they crest and fall with Daniel’s case. First, there are the pleas for prayers and the efforts to make others aware. Then, the shocked expressions of bereavement and grief. Finally, there are sad messages of remembrance during major holidays, birthdays and other important dates.
There is a sadness that underlies the story, but also a palpable strangeness. Witnessing all this happening on the screen on an iPhone also feels curiously flat, especially as heartfelt messages of grief co-exist with notifications of coupons and reminders to pay bills.
“if you never answered x” is a quiet film with an experimental approach to its storytelling, but the lack of convention allows the questions it provokes to come to the fore. The disappearance of a human being from life is a profound matter, but when viewed from the perspective of a smartphone screen, is it just another social media timeline event? How does a person live on, especially when their social media profiles can exist in perpetuity? There are no definitive answers, only restless, uneasy questions in this short but profound film.