“The kid on the milk carton” has become a weary pop-culture punch line, but once, it was a desperate gambit to try to find someone, anyone, who had seen Johnny Gosch. A 12-year-old paperboy, he disappeared from a sidewalk in West Des Moines, Iowa, in 1982 while delivering the Sunday edition. With Who Took Johnny, directors David Beilinson, Michael Galinsky, and Suki Hawley take on a case that was among the first of its kind to make national news, not least of all because his parents pushed their quest for answers long after the initial news-cycle interest died down.
Using an adroit mix of the typical contemporary-doc array of talking heads, archival images, and onscreen graphics, Who Took Johnny lays out the events, establishes the impact of the case locally and nationally, and advances a disturbing theory about what happened to him. (Other boys fitting Johnny’s general description disappeared from the area in years to come.)
But the film also offers a sidelong portrait of Noreen Gosch, Johnny’s mother—in vintage footage, a brittle-seeming Midwestern beauty bearing up under enormous stress; and in the directors’ footage, an older woman with a thousand-yard stare and the eerie polish of an ordinary citizen used to being interviewed on camera. In this account, her life subsequent to her son’s disappearance seems to have been defined by her grief, her attempts to push it back with activity and hope, and some enigmatic beliefs about her son. Johnny Gosch’s fate remains unknown, and grappling with an utter mystery doesn’t make for a tidy narrative, but Who Took Johnny limns a haunting account of the fallout from such a shattering experience.