Computers are such a vital part of how we live our lives today. From search engines to all forms of social media, we rely on the information we get from it to make it through the day. Most of us are constantly plugged in somewhere, whether it is a laptop, tablet or smart phone (the computer we keep in our pockets). Our whole lives are on these things.
The intelligent mystery Searching (96 minutes, without the end credits) uses that aspect of society in a gripping story about a father looking for his missing daughter. The twist is that viewers spend the entirety of the movie watching a screen. We see the protagonist look through social media and search Google for information. Everything we see is via computer or phone cameras or video he finds on the internet. Not only does that give Searching a voyeuristic feel but, since we devote so much of our own time to staring at screens, it also gives it a familiar one.
This is not the first film to use computers as the primary means of telling its story. The Unfriended franchise (unseen by me) puts the same basic idea in service of a horror plot. 2014’s ultimately unsuccessful Open Windows does a similar thing in a thriller setting. Unlike that production, Searching contains genuine emotion. The intimacy of the main character’s search makes the end result far more effective than if this were presented in a traditional manner. As does the filmmakers’ willingness to treat their visual strategy as a way to get inside his family’s most personal moments, instead of a mere gimmick.
The movie starts with a prologue showing the Kim family, David, Pam and Margot. It takes them from Margot’s birth through Pam’s death from lymphoma, efficiently introducing the characters and the way in which audiences will be entering their lives. Oddly, this opening reminded me of the beginning of Pixar’s Up in the way it sums up decades of life in a few minutes. It is also unexpectedly moving, making the Kim’s more than just pieces in a narrative before the plot even kicks in.
Things pick up two years later with David and Margot seemingly coexisting happily together. That is until Margot does not come home one night. She does not come home the next night either causing a scared David to file a missing person’s report. While the detective on the case tries to track Margot’s whereabouts, he investigates his daughter’s life by using her computer and social media accounts. Alarmingly, he begins to realize he might not have known her as well as he thought he did.
As a mystery, there is nothing particularly novel about Searching aside from how it is presented. Yet director Aneesh Chaganty and his cowriter, Sev Ohanian, structured their story in such a way that their storytelling device seems necessary as well as revealing. This is a skillfully designed production. The mystery is solid, but it is the way they get into it that makes this film so absorbing. It is relatively easy to hide things using technology. What David finds adds up to a different person than who he thought he knew. By sticking viewers in his POV, Chaganty (in his feature debut) gets us involved in the investigation in a way that would have been far less personal if the camera was focused on him as opposed to his computer.
It certainly helps that the protagonist has been written to be smart and very determined. David loves his daughter more than anything and will do whatever he has to in order to figure out what happened to her. The things they have him do are realistic considering the tools he has at his disposal. In John Cho, Searching has a lead actor who is sympathetic and able to show his character’s confidence in his daughter beginning to waver, but never his love or concern. Though it is not a subtle part, Cho brings more nuance to it than you might expect.
Searching does not reinvent the wheel. What it does is use technology to make it spin in a slightly different way. The filmmakers apply it so engagingly that I actually found myself caring about the outcome. I wanted everything to turn out okay for the Kims. That is a tribute to the performances, the cleverness of the editing, the taut direction and the way the screenplay used a creative approach to make old material feel new. Searching is not quite great, the final act veers a little too much from the premise, but it is the perfect mystery for our age.
4 out of 5
John Cho as David Kim
Michelle La as Margot
Debra Messing as Detective Vick
Joseph Lee as Peter
Sara Sohn as Pamela Nam Kim
Directed by Aneesh Chaganty
Written by Aneesh Chaganty and Sev Ohanian