Director: Aneesh Chaganty
Stars: John Cho, Michelle La, Debra Messing
The horror series Unfriended beat Aneesh Chaganty to the punch with the laptop-based variant of found footage cinema, but that shouldn’t diminish how impressive some of the achievements are here. Searching is a new mystery thriller which wholly takes place on a computer screen, the narrative unfolding through FaceTime calls, IMs, various social media platforms and real-time news outlets.
Like Unfriended, the real heroes here are editors Nicholas D. Johnson and Will Merrick, who also take credits as directors of virtual photography. Under the guidance of Chaganty they have evidently proven invaluable, assembling these disparate elements into a stream of engaging information.
The opening of the film serves three purposes. 1) It showcases the approach to storytelling going forward with admirable flare, 2) it provides us a suitable exposition dump and 3) it attempts to outdo Pixar’s Up in terms of shortcutting straight to the heart-strings. We’re guided toward welling-up by Torin Borrowdale’s sentimental score.
Why teary? Because Pam Kim (Sara Sohn) has died. She leaves behind grieving widower David Kim (John Cho) and daughter Margot (Michelle La). Through Facebook and text messaging we gain an idea of their relationship, though always from David’s perspective. So, we also share in his apprehension and alarm when Margot just stops replying…
Searching highlights the great resources of the internet for snooping and spying on others, so much so that it may send you scurrying back to your homes and mobiles to enhance your security settings. It’s to the film’s credit that we are able to sense David’s conflicted heart as he violates his daughter’s privacy and jumps onto her various accounts in an attempt to track her down. It’s amazing what a hesitant cursor can achieve. And Chaganty is just as aware of how suspenseful those three little dots can be when someone is typing a message.
Housed in this virtual world of browsers and apps, Searching needs a little humanity. John Cho works his heart out to provide this, though due to the nature of the technology its his forehead we get to know best. Fortunately, he is not alone. Debra Messing (yes, from Will & Grace) plays Detective Rosemary Vick, assigned to the eventual missing persons case, and takes on her share of the water. And, in a very smart move, Margot is kept alive in the picture when David discovers a treasure trove of Youcast videos left like a breadcrumb trail.
Chaganty keeps things engaging for quite some time. Digital cinema is here and here to stay, so calling Searching a gimmick seems short-sighted. However, the insistence on remaining within cyberspace the entire time does feel as though it has tested the film’s authors. The first cut to online news footage feels like an exhale of exhaustion, while Searching stretches credulity as it presents us CCTV of a police interrogation in progress. Are we supposed to believe David has hacked in? Chaganty asks us to just go with it – and this is probably the wisest choice – but it does throw you out a little.
Everyone enjoys playing armchair detective, and Searching throws us the usual red herrings. Here they all read as kind of obvious, though, and the writing in general suffers a kind of forced naturalism that renders everything just a little bit off. Recognisable stars notwithstanding, nobody’s going to mistake this for genuine found footage. Is it far-fetched? Some of its late moves feel a tad incredulous. You can feel the film searching for its own unique twist other than the method of presentation. These earnest machinations are what makes the second half feel somewhat less successful than the first, which really works gangbusters.
Most of the platitudes will be for Chaganty’s progressive approach to form, but it’s also heartening to see a widely released American film front-lining an Asian family. Nothing within the film suggests anything of note in this, which also lends it credibility. If only Hollywood in general took to casting Asian Americans in leading roles with such nonchalance. Searching is a small victory in the ongoing campaign for inclusivity.