‘Searching’ Review: John Cho Makes This Inventive Screen-Based Thriller Work
Given how much of our lives are spent online these days, it only feels natural that the entirety of Aneesh Chaganty’s Searching is told from the perspective of computer and smartphone screens — whether or not we like what that says about us. When a man’s daughter goes missing, he turns to the digital archive of her life to solve the case, and we follow along through every click and scroll. The first-time filmmaker employs the screen-life style most popularly explored in the Unfriended movies (this shares producer Timur Bekmambetov), and he pulls it off surprisingly well, crafting a nail-biting thriller from start to finish.
Everything we see in Searching, which was co-written by Chaganty and Sev Ohanian, is from the point-of-view of screens: web cams, FaceTime calls, social media posts, YouTube videos, Google spreadsheets, search engines, GPS displays, news broadcasts, and beyond. We’re brought into that digital world right away when the film opens with the sound of dial-up internet and the image of an old Windows desktop booting up. The computer belongs to the Kims, a Korean-American family we get to know through seeing everything they do when logged on.
An opening montage introduces David (John Cho), his wife Pam (Sara Sohn), and their young daughter Margot as they giggle in home videos and photos saved under various folders. We watch Margot speed through adolescence as she chats on AIM, spooks her parents with a haunted email chain letter (remember those?), consults Google for sex-ed research, and adds her middle school graduation to a virtual calendar. Then hospital photos and condolence emails reveal Pam was diagnosed with cancer and soon passed away. It’s pretty impressive how Chaganty packs so much information and genuine emotion into the short sequence; in a matter of minutes, I was surprised that I already felt connected to characters I’d only met through poking around their computer desktop.
The mystery soon kicks into motion when David wakes up to missed calls from the now-16-year-old Margot (Michelle La) from the night before. When she’s nowhere to be found 37 hours later, he reports her missing. Debra Messing‘s Detective Rosemary Vick begins investigating the teen’s disappearance as a panicked David pores over his daughter’s social media profiles and phone contacts for clues. “I know my daughter,” David angrily insists to Rosemary over a video call (the most unrealistic thing about this movie is how every phone conversation happens via FaceTime; who does that?). As he digs further, more questions pile up and David learns he doesn’t know Margot very well at all. Margot quit piano lessons months ago, but pocketed the money anyway; she had more friends on the internet than in real life; a Venmo transaction shows she sent thousands of dollars to an unknown user; and where the heck was she going when traffic cam footage captured her car turning onto a dark side road?
We may spend the film’s entire runtime glued to pixilated interfaces, but Searching is anything but boring. Chaganty, a former Google employee who became known for his viral short Seeds (shot entirely using Google Glass), finds clever ways to bring suspense, humor, and emotion to the screen-sharing technique. A buffering live-stream adds jolts of tension to one climactic moment, an explosive phone call between David and a suspect builds before ending with a humorous punchline typed out on-screen, and the limited point-of-view of the webcams and phone cameras keep you guessing.
While most of the film’s tech is used to inventively and smoothly propel the narrative forward, not all of Chaganty’s choices work. At certain points, the screen premise begins to feel forced, becoming more of a gimmick to engender a left-field plot twist or bit of misdirection. One curveball nearly took me out of the movie as it veered into unnecessarily dark territory, and though I was genuinely surprised by the big final twist, it’s much too far-fetched and messier than it should be.
I’ve spent all this time talking about screens without mentioning the actual face we spend the entire movie watching on them. Two years after #StarringJohnCho went viral, Cho is no longer just the Harold to Kal Penn’s Kumar or the Sulu to Chris Pine’s Kirk; he’s the solo leading man of a mainstream release — emphasis on solo. He spends the majority of Searching’s runtime acting alone on screen, mostly opposite a GoPro mounted on a fake laptop. He gives an effortlessly natural performance that grows in intensity as David begins to crack, losing his patience and temper as he hits one dead end after another. Cho’s the emotional anchor that makes this experimental style of film work. After all, it wouldn’t matter how many snazzy tricks Chaganty pulled off with screens if there wasn’t a charismatic and compelling performer on them. Let’s hope this is just the first of many more Cho leading roles.
Though Searching is a fun ride, I left disappointed over how little the film uses its digital schtick to unpack the psychology behind our modern screen addiction. The film is less interested in understanding how and why the internet can be a vital outlet for teens today, and the impact of technology that’s enveloped every aspect of our lives, than it is in using that tech to craft a twist-laden mystery. That would be fine if the movie wasn’t about an introverted teenager who finds more opportunities to express herself online than in the real world. For a movie so entrenched in the all-consuming nature of modern tech, I wish it had a little more to say about how we present ourselves in the real world versus a digital one.
Does Searching make a case for more movies to be made using the screen-life technique? Not necessarily, and I’d hate to see it become a trend. But for 102 minutes it keeps you hooked, proving that it’s only becoming harder to tear our eyes away from screens.