Searching is part of the “Screenlife” style of filmmaking, in which the stories are told via images and messages on computer desktops, developed by producer Timur Bekmambetov and previously seen in the two Unfriended movies, as well as utilized in Bekmambetov’s own Profile (reviewed here). Although Searching’s “action,” as in those other features, never leaves the cyber-world, it’s not bound to the real-time, one-full-screen approach that made the Unfriended films inexorably effective. Here, we jump from one computer to another, and director/co-writer Aneesh Chaganty employs basic cinematic grammar such as pans, zooms, and even jumps in the chronology.
The meshing of methods works splendidly, and to Searching’s advantage. A great deal of the narrative in Chaganty and Sev Ohanian’s script is dependent on both communication and miscommunication through various online means, and the first-person motif involves us as spectators right away and keeps us hooked. Utilizing social media and other internet tools we’re all familiar with, Chaganty keeps Searching relatably real, even when the plotting ventures into only-in-the-movies territory in the final act.
An opening montage swiftly and succinctly uses an assortment of apps to introduce us to the history of the Kim family: father David (John Cho), mother Pamela (Sara Sohn) and their daughter Margot. Over the course of the smartly deployed text/images, we learn everything we need to know about the trio—most tragically, Pamela’s succumbing to lymphoma. The film then settles into its main narrative, which begins when the now teenaged Margot (Michelle La) doesn’t come home from a study get-together at a friend’s house. At first, David isn’t too concerned—though via one of Chaganty’s many well-timed details, we realize he should be, as a series of late-night, unanswered phone and FaceTime calls from Margot pop up on David’s dormant screen.
Via FaceTime and other video calls, we get to know, like and sympathize with David, who’s doing his best to raise Margot alone, and to jump to neither conclusions nor anger when interacting with her; more than once, we see him start an irate text to her, which is then erased in favor of a more composed message. Once she vanishes, he begins playing detective, in the way anyone would in this day and age: by going through her online accounts, seeing who she was interacting with on Facebook and Instagram (though he’s unfamiliar with Tumblr, in one of the movie’s knowing moments of humor), and seeking out friends and other people acquainted with her. As he discovers that there were sides to Margot he was completely unaware of, Searching builds tension not just by answering the questions of what happened to her, but also by exploring the double life Margot was leading and, by implication, the alternate identities so many people maintain in the cyber world.
Chaganty and his graphics/editing team pack the screen with a constant stream of visual information, which has you scanning the quickly glimpsed webpages and chats looking for clues of your own (they’re there, though they may not be the ones you first suspect). Searching also functions as a commentary on the way we interface with our loved ones and the outside world, how we judge each other online—once the hunt for Margot hits the news, comment boards sport accusations that David is responsible—and the way the private becomes public in the blink of an iPhone. When David angrily confronts a dirtbag he believes is involved in Margot’s disappearance, the resulting altercation ends up, of course, on YouTube. Throughout it all, the Screenlife gambit encourages the audience to attempt to put the pieces together along with David, and a sympathetic police investigator (Debra Messing) who takes the case.
Searching also works because, for a good while, David’s harrowing experience plays like something that could happen to any parent. Eventually, a couple of major twists are thrown in that redirect the narrative into Hollywood-thriller territory. Some of the developments in the last act might seem dubious in a traditionally told film, but the immediacy of the presentation makes them work, and Chaganty shrewdly plays on our identification with David’s anxiousness for a resolution. By this point, we’re so involved with David and Margot’s plight that a simple text message toward the end, tying up the movie’s emotional threads, got big applause from the audience at a screening last month at Montreal’s Fantasia festival.
Cho is fully engaging as a typical father fighting his way through the online forest of his daughter’s life, which proves to be more dense and tangled than he ever suspected. At the same time, Cho’s casting in this Everyman role—in which his ethnicity is uncommented on and beside the point—is a nicely progressive touch. It’s another sign of doors opening in the moviemaking field, complementing the movie’s place as part of the vanguard of a new and very modern branch of screen storytelling.