Susan Selky (Kate Nelligan) lives in Brooklyn, teaches English at Columbia university and has been separated from her husband Graham (David Dukes) for three months. Her six-year-old son Alex (Daniel Bryan Corkill) is the joy of her life.
One morning she watches him wave goodbye to her at the corner on his way to school two blocks away. Susan returns from work in the afternoon and waits for Alex. He never shows up. The boy has disappeared without a trace.
The police arrive. Al Menetti (Judd Hirsch) is in charge of the case. When Graham can't be located, detectives are sent to find him. Menetti suspects he has taken Alex in a simple case of parental kidnapping. Susan's home is soon invaded by more police; outside the press are hungry for a story. Later, Graham arrives to console his wife. Their nightmare has just begun.
Without a Trace is based on Beth Gutcheon's bestselling novel Still Missing. All across the country, every day, children disappear. We learn that 95% of all missing children are usually located within 24 hours, that the FBI cannot become involved in these cases unless there is proof of a federal crime, and that offering a reward often causes more problems than results, given the abundance of kooky people in the world.
Menetti, who has a boy the same age as Alex, takes great personal interest in the search. Every lead is tracked down. Helicopters scan the nearby dock. A psychic is calling in to offer leads. But it all comes to nothing.
Susan continues to believe against all odds that Alex is still alive. She digs deep inside herself and builds hope of raw feelings and maternal instinct. The community rallies around her. Posters are distributed throughout the area. She goes on TV and undergoes the onslaught of the media in the belief that somewhere someone will produce information about Alex's whereabouts.
Kate Nelligan's convincing performance as Susan is sharp and focused as a laser beam. As she pursues the search, those around her don't know how to react. Her mother finds it difficult to talk to her. Graham tries to prepare her for the possibility that she will never see her son again. Jocelyn (Stockard Channing), a neighborhood friend, advises her to seek therapy. But Susan remains as brave as a soldier in battle.
Judd Hirsch's portrait of Al Menetti is as moving, credible and humanistic as his depiction of the caring psychiatrist in Ordinary People. Despite his erroneous moves in the case there are three large mistakes he continues to work with Susan even after he is ordered off the search. His need to get closer to his own son on an afternoon's excursion leads to the surprising breakthrough at the end.
Producer Stanley R. Jaffe, whose credits include Bad Company, Kramer vs. Kramer, The Bad News Bears, and Taps, deserves praise for bringing this drama to the screen. His directorial debut is a good one. In a decade where far too many films offer little more than escapist entertainment, it is salutary to see someone who wants to bring to the screen human stories that touch the heart.