What it's about: David Kim is a single father whose 15-year-old daughter Margot unexpectedly goes missing after a late night study session. Margot seems to be the perfect daughter: she does well in school, loves playing the piano, spends time with her dad, and the extent of her bad behavior seems to be not taking out the trash. Distraught, David turns to her social media life to piece together the clues for how this could have happened and discovers that he didn't actually know Margot as well as he thought. As he realizes some disturbing truths about her through her online presence, David must race against time to find the reasons why she disappeared and if she can be saved.
If you've heard of Aneesh Chaganty's debut film Searching it is probably because of its radical cinematic form, told almost entirely through a computer screen operation system. This isn't the first movie to be made this way -- it is something of an extension of the bulk of found footage movies that have come out the past decade and more directly similar to low budget horror film Unfriended and its 2018 sequel.
I haven't seen either of the Unfriended films, so this was my first look at the formal style that producer Timur Bekmambetov apparently wants to make a thing. To my surprise, what seemed like a awful gimmick is Searching's best attribute. The desktop style of the film is used cleverly, seamlessly integrates visual storytelling, and is more cinematic than I expected.
The look-and-feel of Searching reminds me of a classic point-and-click computer mystery game in the way the story progresses. But it was engaging enough to cede control over to movie characters.
Believe it or not, montages of David scrolling through social media profiles, creating spreadsheets, and collecting data are when Searching is the most captivating. This really speaks to the film's exceptional editing. In contrast from an emotional perspective, the film's opening montage which zooms through about a decade in the changes of our lives on computers and the specific journey of this family is probably where the film best balances its narrative and visual construction.
John Cho has an incredibly difficult task as the primary character of the film and he exceeds the challenges. As most of his interactions in the film take place over phone or FaceTime, it is quite obvious that he is doing a majority of his work without an acting partner. Others in the cast have a more difficult time with this, but Cho delivers a performance full of energy and broad scope of emotion. The successful design of Searching was enough for it to work as a film, but it certainly would have been a lot tougher to watch with a less compelling performance throughout.
Seeing how social media reacts to a tragedy is one of the more biting commentaries on technology. It is only a brief moment in the film, but Searching does a great job poking at the inherent hypocrisy and ignorance that divides our social and "real" lives.
OK, after the praise I have for Searching, now I need to get into what doesn't work about the film ... and there are significant problems that ultimately give the film a barely passing grade. As a crazed father searching for clues, Searching works. As a full on police investigation film, Searching is comically complicated and painfully rote.
The only way the film can ultimately bring everything together is for a character to literally explain everything in a confessional setting. The film is able to make a lot of its thriller connections out organically [at least palatably], so this was a great disappointment and absolutely ruins the ending.
One of the film's biggest problems, unfortunately, is the character of lead detective Vick and the performance by Debra Messing. As much energy as John Cho brings to the table, Messing is basically the complete opposite -- she's robotic, monotone in an narrative environment that already is inherently emotionally distant.
SPOILERS MAY FOLLOW
The final act, roughly 30 minutes, of the film piles on twists at a dizzying rate. It also brings forward a very interesting dilemma: when a film's twist reveals that what seemed like plot holes or bad narrative logic was perhaps purposeful, how should someone thinking through the film critically reconcile this?
As the film's investigation plot moved forward, there were many times when information was revealed in a shocking way that just didn't hold up to any critical thought. David makes discoveries that any thorough police investigation should have easily found.
At other times, there is information that David probably would have stumbled across if the film didn't need it to be held off for the climax -- messages between Margot and another character close to David is the biggest example of this.
But when everything is fully on the table at the end it is justifiable why certain characters acted in particular ways or why certain important information was ignored or not discovered. So what seemed like sloppy plotting is excused. This kind of reveal is tried-and-true in thrillers [the viewer forced to think back through the entire events to see everything in a new light], but in the case of Searching, I still would have appreciated a little more narrative discipline.