Film Review – Searching
Searching (2018) is the latest entry into a growing category of films that takes place entirely on screens. A story is told as though we are looking at a computer monitor, cell phone, or TV screen. Information is given to us through text messages, FaceTime, YouTube videos, archived photos, and websites. It’s a unique approach, representative of a 21st century way of living, where we are constantly reliant on technology and in our ability to connect to other people online. We’ve seen this done previously in The Den (2013) and Unfriended (2014), to varying degrees of success. Searching is the best version of this style so far, making a case for it being a legitimate form of storytelling.
Aneesh Chaganty makes his feature length debut as director and co-writer (with Sev Ohanian) and the result is an engrossing, tension filled mystery. It’s been argued that one of the least interesting things a movie can do is show people looking at a computer screen, but when Chaganty and Ohanian places us the audience into the eyes of that character, we’re suddenly thrust into their situation like an accomplice. For their debut, Chaganty and Ohanian inject a level of intelligence and heart into the screenplay that many lesser filmmakers would fail to do. They realize that relying on the gimmick of the style is not enough to keep us engaged. There is a strong emotional undercurrent that enriches the material. When the suspense starts to escalate, it hits all the harder because Chaganty and Ohanian took the time to set up the stakes.
The narrative works because it’s also anchored by a superb lead performance. John Cho has been a working actor for years and yet still remains somewhat underappreciated. In Searching, we witness him really get a chance to flex his acting muscles, showcasing a wide range of emotional states: from happy, to mournful, to angry, funny, and desperate. His face is shown the most, often in extreme close up, but Cho has the charisma and acting ability to keep us glued in. He plays David Kim, a widower trying to raise his daughter Margo (Michelle La) as best as he can after the loss of his wife. David and Margo’s relationship is often relegated to text messages, as she is currently a high school student dealing with college applications, study groups, and being a normal teenage kid. One night Margo doesn’t come home from a late night study session, and as David’s texts and calls go unanswered, he comes to the awful realization that all parents fear: his child has gone missing.
And thus David enters a long and complex investigation where he uses all forms of technology to trace Margo’s whereabouts. It’s here where the production really shines. The way information is presented to us is constantly inventive. Chaganty and Ohanian don’t settle on having characters simply tell us what’s going on through expository dialogue – they use creative methods to get the point across. We learn about David’s history with his wife Pamela (Sara Sohn) through archived videos taken at various points of their marriage, painting a portrait of their lives through time, eventually giving birth to and raising Margo. David’s attempt to trace what happened to Margo is expertly done, weaving his way through different websites, GPS location spots and even going so far as interviewing her classmates, detailing her movements without ever being convoluted. David joins forces with Detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing) – assigned to handle the ground operation – and the way they uncover clues together keeps us on edge.
The writing is smart and sleek, keeping us guessing the entire way through. One of the great joys of watching a film is not expecting what will happen next, and Chaganty and Ohanian do a fantastic job of keeping the mystery covered all the way up to the closing scenes. Red herrings are everywhere but the plot structure is tight – everything is appropriately placed and nothing feels loose or unattended for. When revelations are made, they strike us like a ton of bricks, but they don’t come about arbitrarily. Every detail has a purpose, and when certain elements are called back upon, it changes our understanding of the story in refreshing ways.
But this isn’t simply a dour, sobering tale. Chaganty and Ohanian allow moments of levity, and the comedic aspects are quite funny. The writing and directing, along with Cho’s performance, fully embraces David as a “Dad” – somewhat disconnected with the trends of Margot’s generation. David’s way of spending quality time with his kid is by watching The Voice and a lot of his early frustrations involve Margo forgetting to do her chores. When someone tells him that his daughter uses the website Tumblr, David looks it up by researching the word “Tumbler.” Watching David try to work his way through a live stream website was hilarious, even though he is tech savvy we can see that he’s slowly becoming detached from what’s trendy now. All these bits come as a welcome respite from the seriousness of the main plot.
The last act of Searching is arguably the least convincing. In stories such as this, sometimes the questions are more fascinating then the answers. When the truth is finally uncovered, it doesn’t have the satisfying feeling compared to how tense the lead up to it was. And sadly, the narrative stumbles at the finish line, spelling everything out like the interrogation scene in Psycho (1960). But the craft, and more importantly, the emotional work that was put into this film was so well done that the weakness of the third act can be forgiven. This is a tremendous debut from Chaganty, Ohanian, and their team. They took the act of looking at a screen and turned it into a first rate thriller for the modern age.