Director: Aneesh Chaganty,
Screenplay: Aneesh Chaganty, Sev Ohanian
Starring: John Cho, Debra Messing
Runtime: 102 Minutes
The concept of having a narrative playout over the menus, folders, text boxes and internet search windows of a computer screen isn’t entirely new, even given the few years since its popular emergence. The use of the concept came to prominence through the horror film Unfriended back in 2014, as well as its successful use in short films such as Noah and advertising campaigns for social media platforms and services.
But what Searching manages to accomplish extends beyond the gimmick of telling its story in this way. Taking a traditionally structured thriller narrative, this being father David Kim (John Cho) trying to find his missing 16-year-old daughter Margot (Michelle La) with the help of a police detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing), it transforms the experience into one of the most engaging, ferociously original and unexpectedly emotional films to be released this year.
The way in which human language and interaction has evolved since the advent of the internet and interconnectivity through screens is made staggering once you take a set back and realise how the nuances of daily interaction have altered how we choose to communicate – and it’s something that Searching takes and runs with in a way that hasn’t quite been realised before in the cinematic medium.
How the film uses these methods of technological communication sounds like a cynical promo for the services and devices which it heavily utilises, but in fact, comes across as a natural part of day-to-day life that we have seamlessly integrated ourselves into. Identities not only formed or forged online as representations of ourselves, but memories stored and catalogued through clouds, titled folders and calendar notifications.
Yet, through all of this, Searching manages to weave all of its interictally mounted technical details and visual extrapolations back into the human drama that it is telling. Over the film’s opening scenes, we see the entire life of Margot laid out across the videos, pictures and planner events of her parent’s computer screens before she starts to use computers and social media herself, all the while telling the story of a loving family devastated by the tragic loss of their mother.
As far as packing an emotional wallop is concerned, it’s almost up there with the wordless opening sequences of Up. But it doesn’t stop there. Through David’s eyes, we are subject to his interior monologue and thought processes made visible through his interactions with text. Search boxes and unsent messages that give a gateway into his state of mind.
The simplest uses of an exclamation mark or lack of proves to be some of the most overwhelming emotional indicators as to the gap that has grown between father and daughter since the passing of a wife and mother that neither have really come to terms with.
This is director and co-writer Aneesh Chaganty’s first film, but having worked on similar looking projects before for television advertising campaigns he knows exactly what it’s doing when it comes to visually portraying the story he’s telling. Though he uses dramatic music at times, it’s used correctly in a mostly unobtrusive fashion. He zooms in and focuses the attention on what he wants you to see, and makes sure that it feels as understandable to a modern audience without resorting to cheaper gimmicks.
Its power comes down to its performances as much as the visual craft and control on display, and John Cho’s rebirth as a protective father figure is just as engaging as anything else going on. He holds every verbal exchange through the reaction shots as seen through the displayed webcam in video conversation windows, but also the desperate sadness in his eyes where simple moments such as sending one of his wife’s recipe files to the trash bin convey so much pain. It’s hard to watch as much as it is to believe that the spell is working. Kudos also goes to the supporting Debra Messing as the detective on the case trying as hard to solve the disappearance as he is.
On top of this immeasurable technical balancing act, Searching is just a brilliantly entertaining watch as a missing person drama, techno-thriller and an amateur detective mystery. Through the screen, we are David Kim as much as he becomes a stand-in for us, taking us on his quest as he scours his daughters’ messages, social media feeds and friend circles for information on his daughter – compiling lists of suspects and scattering his collected information across the desktop background like the wall mounted conspiracy collages of so many films like it.
It’s imaginative subversions and reinterpretations of generic visual details and story structures like this that make it so compelling to keep watching, piling on twists and revelations enough to make the audience grip the sides of their seat as the penny drops on certain reveals at the same time as it does for David.
If there’s any real criticism to be had that wouldn’t resort to needless technical nit-picking, it might be that those better versed in the genre and the kinds of twists to be expected might leave them wanting something more from a plot perspective by the end. It all ties up rather fast with a greater deal of verbal exposition, and though there are mild cheats in the form of using news footage to cover segments away from computer screens, it’s acceptable given that computer screens are where many now do most of their televised viewing.
The most breath-taking quality of the film comes down to how it effortlessly manages to rewrite the nature of cinematic language and storytelling without the audience immediately noticing, carried by its substantive emotional resonance, it’s gripping pace and storytelling, and the birth of exciting new talents and horizons for the medium. Searching is the kind of cinematic experience that puts faith and ingenuity back into mainstream theatres, as well as being a crowd-pleasing sucker punch of an end to summer 2018.