I read a review of Searching that claimed it was timely. It implied it was culturally relevant to today’s society and is must watch viewing for the reason that missing children are rife in this day and age. I’m not sure how true that is as children have been disappearing for one reason or another for years. This kind of story has been told many times before, in many different ways. This is just the first to tell it entirely on a computer/phone screen. That might be where this film finds its relevance, its connection to society today. Technology has brought us further than we could possibly imagine but if you look closely enough, you might see just how toxic it has become. The number of times I have heard the term ‘digital footprint’ in crime dramas makes me nauseous but I never really understood the term. Searching changed that.
Directed by Aneesh Chaganty in his feature debut, Searching is the story of David Kim (John Cho), a recently widowed father who has to face the possibility that tragedy has struck twice when his teenage daughter Margot (Michelle La) goes missing one night. Struggling to find answers through the usual means, he breaks into her computer and internet accounts looking for clues to her whereabouts. What he finds makes him realise that he might not know his daughter as well as he thought he did and she might not want to be found.
First off, I want to be clear that I grew up in the 90s on reruns of Murder She Wrote, Quincy and Diagnosis Murder so I am always entertained by a decent mystery. I’m also incredibly frustrated by a bad one. Luckily Searching is a film that uses its unique storytelling device to craft an excellent mystery, not only spacing out the discoveries but hiding tantalising titbits in plain sight for the average viewer, myself included, to miss the first go around. The general clutter of a desktop computer makes it a treasure trove of information left unread, making it a perfect hiding place for Chaganty to conceal things.
There has been an influx of this kind of movie lately with horror film Unfriended being the most recent I can remember but Searching never feels gimmicky like the previous films of this trend. The irony is that the computer screen brings us closer to our characters instead of away from them. In a way this is where the film finds its cultural relevance in that we hide our true selves in our online personas, while hiding away from reality in a place that can’t hurt us. Films like Searching & Unfriended or shows like Catfish dispel this myth. The internet as safe haven for your soul is a pipe dream, one encouraged by the websites David uses to create a timeline as to when and where his daughter went missing.
This is inventive storytelling that never relies on anything more than a well constructed, layered script and a director who has a flair for the cinematic. However there are times the film stretches plausibility as there are certain limits to how far technology has come. Despite how good the internet is I still don’t think that a 4G video call from the middle of nowhere would work, no matter how important it is to the plot. The fact that this phone call is in high-definition is also a point of contention between myself and Mr Chaganty.
This is a mild bump in a film lovingly crafted, paying homage to films you wouldn’t expect from a thriller. For instance, the opening, a clear reference to Pixar’s Up is an inroad for the audience into not only David’s character but also Margot’s. The opening montage, much like Up’s is full of joy and tragedy, a dynamic way to introduce us to a family only to have us re-examine these characters over the course of the film. Our misconceptions of Margot are compounded by our understanding of her upbringing, the fact that these two elements do not converge properly provides us with emotional fodder as well as a neatly planted clue.
The whole ordeal is carefully designed but it rests on Cho’s shoulders for the most part. He is the audiences link to Margot, his notion of her is ours as we understand her just as well as he does, which is not at all. Chaganty clearly banks on Cho’s charisma and its a smart move as he anchors the film. Despite his obvious frustration and panic, he is empathetic and understanding yet never perfect. The addition of Debra Messing as lead detective Rosemary Vick is just the cherry on top as the role is one full of exposition, easy to be overburdened by, yet Messing makes her three-dimensional and relate-able . She is required to explain the plot while given very few character beats to flesh Vick out and yet we care for her, an impressive feat.
In the end though, this is less a mystery but a look at the power of grief on our behaviour. Margot and David are in hiding, both from each other and the people around them. The lies we tell catch up to us seems to be Chaganty’s message here as this disconnect brings about suffering. This virtual world serves as a vault for more than our feelings but also our secrets, our shames and our fears. These are the things that should be out in the open for all to see because then, they have no power over us.
Told by a modern voice in a new way, Searching is something fresh for audiences but still familiar. A fun thriller with real stakes that doesn’t get lost in its mystery so much that it can’t see what it’s trying to say. One worth going in blind for as the journey is half the fun.