He just missed his daughter’s final call.
It’s the formal boldness of the new thriller Searching that is its most prominent feature. This is a big screen thriller that is mediated through small screens, the conceit being that everything we see, every single shot, is through a computer monitor, a webcam, a phone, a tablet, and so forth. Directed by newcomer Aneesh Chaganty, who also co-wrote the script with Sev Ohanian, the film takes advantage of the current ubiquity of video, streaming and communications technology to tell a story about how all those miraculous toys can prove to be far more isolating than connecting.
That might be a bit of an obvious conclusion to anyone who spends a lot of time online, but it’s enough thematic complexity to put it a step ahead of other social tech-conscious efforts like The Den (2013), Unfriended (2014), and Friend Request (2016), which have generally used techniques similar to the ones on display here in service to the jump scare. Chaganty and company, however, while still cleaving to the thriller genre, instead use a broad palette of text messages, vlogs, chat windows, Skype recordings and what have you to build up a mosaic portrait of in-the-crowd loneliness.
The figure at the center of this portrait is 16-year-old Margot Kim (Michelle La), who on the surface seems to have gotten over her mother’s recent death from cancer about as well as could be expected. She’s a bright student, a gifted pianist, with a full roster of extra-curricular activities that keep her solidly busy outside of school hours. And then she simply vanishes one night when she’s ostensibly with her study group, leaving her worried widowed dad, David (John Cho) to gradually peel back the virtual layers of his daughter’s life to reveal the truth about both what happened to her and who she really is.
Not that she’s an imposter, mind you, but Searching goes out of its way to highlight how we tend to build up a better version of ourselves for public consumption, concealing our real feelings, fears and anxieties even from those closest to us. In doing so it becomes an intensely and occasionally uncomfortably intimate experience, anchored by Cho’s earnest, open performance as a father, still grieving the loss of his wife, who has to grapple with the idea that he doesn’t know the apple of his eye half as well as he thought he did.
This would all be thematic chaff if Searching didn’t also function as a taut and engaging mystery. The film is rigid and consistent in its construction, and though it substitutes a few well-known brand names in the building of its world (a fictitious live-blogging site YouCast features more prominently than YouTube, for example), the way in which information is uncovered and mediated makes sense in the context of the story, and the film never cheats to drop vital clues in front of David as he doggedly pursues his own investigation parallel to that of assigned Detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing).
Despite what other pundits have claimed, Searching is almost certainly not the trope codifier for a whole new subgenre — while it is a clever refinement on the found footage paradigm, in effect what it does is just a little too confining to be used well too many more times. It is, however, a neat example of form and theme working in almost perfect concert, and definitely a more thoughtful and insightful film than its obvious gimmick might have you believe.
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by Travis Johnson