On the surface, Searching looks a bit like a stunt movie. Something akin to The Blair Witch Project, or more accurately, the horror film Unfriended and its sequel, Unfriended: Dark Web. Like the two Unfriended pics, Searching is told entirely through computer screens. Unlike the two Unfriended movies, it’s a whole lot more effective doing it.
I was suspicious heading into the theatre to see it. Despite terrific buzz and good reviews, it was hard not to think that the film would be at the mercy of its self-imposed limitations. I’m grateful to report back that not only was I wrong, but I was mistaken on a level that I simply could not have anticipated. That’s not to say that Searching’s storytelling methodology isn’t a stunt. It most certainly is. However, it’s a remarkably effective one.
As widower (played with immense empathy by John Cho) David Kim’s daughter Margot goes missing, he realizes he does not know her nearly as well as he thinks he does. Who are her friends? Where does she go when she leaves the house? Is she still showing up for piano lessons? What follows is a father’s desperate attempt to sort through the online remnants of her life on social media for clues, scraps, anything that might tell him where she might have gone and who she might be with.
In his first full length feature, director Aneesh Chaganty proves expert at keeping the pace set to nerve-jangling. There are moments that are positively Hitchcockian. Like a late film reveal that changes just about everything you know, using a stock model photo just as Kim is about to close his browser.
All of this tight winding of the viewer’s internal clock would have been well and good on its own. That would have sustained the movie as a nice little time killer thriller that you might easily recommend to a friend.
“Hey, you ever see Searching?’
“Is that the internet movie with the missing girl? Nah.”
“Check it out. It’s pretty good.”
Something like that. Positive, but not a rave.
What surprised me about Searching is how much it uses its conceit to tell a genuinely moving family story. I shit you not, the opening sequence of family videos being opened and viewed from a laptop, showcasing the three-person unit’s events from the profound (the daughter’s birth), to the mundane (mother and daughter making dinner together), to the tragic (the mother’s battle with cancer), reminded me of nothing less than prologue to Pixar’s animated classic, Up.
The efficient delivery of these moments takes little time from the mystery/thriller aspects that follow. More importantly, it underpins the film with deep emotional gravitas. You understand immediately that David Kim is a sad fellow, living through his daughter. A little overprotective and worried that his 15-year-old girl is starting to pull away from him as teenagers often do. It also makes his frustration and concern more palpable when the detective on the case (nicely played against type by Debra Messing) starts asking Kim questions about his daughter and he realizes how few answers he has at his fingertips.
Not only does he have a detective, but he must become one himself.
Still, one would be forgiven for thinking a film told entirely through chat rooms, web cams, desktops, and Face Time using multiple devices would be able to sustain interest for 102 minutes of running time. It’s a credit not only to the director’s industriousness and John Cho’s expressive face, but also Chaganty and Sev Ohanian’s twisty screenplay. Which knows just went to drop a new hint or revelation. Perhaps what it does most brilliantly is put you in front of the laptop, phone, and camera. You feel as if you are thinking your way through the conundrum as Cho is. It’s nearly an interactive experience.
I am a little mixed on the film’s big reveal. While on one hand it did make my jaw drop, upon reflection, it feels like more than a bit of a stretch. Especially as it introduces a new character whose sudden significance might be the only instance where the movie doesn’t quite play fair with you.
I have a feeling the solid financial success and low budget of Searching will lead to more films of its ilk. If there’s one thing studios love, it’s a cheap gimmick they can run aground. I suspect Searching is going to be hard to top when it comes to films told through modern-day devices. I anticipate future films of this type focusing mostly on the mechanics, jump scares, and the like. I doubt they are going to take the time to write such a taught screenplay, hire a director with this many tricks up his sleeve, and put a leading man like John Cho in front of the camera. Even if they do, they are going to struggle to invest future films with the most essential and unexpected quality that Searching has which will set it apart in this newly-minted genre.
A thing called heart.