Release: 31 August 2018
Running time: 102 minutes
Director: Aneesh Chaganty
Starring: John Cho, Debra Messing, Michelle La, Sara Sohn, Joseph Lee
There are numerous missing person films out there, be they award-worthy dramas (Gone Baby Gone, Prisoners), action thrillers (Breakdown, Taken) or just plain Hitchcock (The Lady Vanishes). Searching is director Aneesh Chaganty’s first feature film (co-written with Sev Ohanian) and is distinctive in that it’s told via laptops, phones, tablets and CCTV.
With Facebook having been in the headlines over the last few months as social media users question the data that’s being collected on them, Searching feels somewhat timely. The irony here is that it’s a film where a missing person’s digital footprint just might help in finding her.
David Kim (John Cho) does not know where his 16-year-old daughter Margot (Michelle La) is. He probably hasn’t seen any of the aforementioned missing person films either. He calls the police and has Detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing) assigned to the case. 37 hours later, and with no leads, David takes it upon himself to do his own investigation and fires up his daughter’s laptop, looking for clues on her social media pages, photos, conversations and videos. Why didn’t she mention that she cancelled her piano lessons? Why did she lie about her study group? Has she run away? Was she abducted? Was she catfished?
Since winning the Audience Award Next at the Sundance Film Festival this year (where Sony paid for the rights to distribute), Searching has slowly been accumulating some positive buzz during its festival run. Produced by Timur Bekmambetov (of Night Watch, Day Watch and Wanted), he’s fully behind making films that unravel via a computer screen, having directed one himself (the soon to be released Profile). He also produced the supernatural horror film Unfriended, one of the first films which showed that it’s possible to tell a story that plays out on a computer screen (it also saw a sequel released earlier this year). Searching proves that it’s possible to tell a good one.
Unfriended dealt with characters that were unlikeable (they all did a bad thing) and used the supernatural as an excuse to get away with the ludicrous, such as a guy sticking his hand inside a blender. Searching is grounded more in modern day reality with a family relationship and the (mis)use of technology adding a refreshing spin on the missing person scenario. It also amps up the emotions straight away, opening with a series of videos of David, his wife Pam (Sara Sohn) and their daughter Margot, leading to Pam passing away from cancer.
By telling the story mostly via a computer screen, the film gains marks by taking minor but convincing efforts to be believable, be it a few typo errors, or Norton AntiVirus letting you know that it needs to be updated. It even takes the time to show how David gains access to his daughter’s e-mail and Facebook account, a boring yet necessary plot element when it comes to explaining the use of verification codes. The more eagle-eyed will notice little clues, such as the names of certain documents, text messages, photos and usernames, things which are not focused upon but make for hidden additions lingering in the background.
There are a few things that seem a little off. While it gains kudos for showing that David and Pam began storing their videos and photos on a computer using Windows XP, it’s a little far-fetched to believe that they were still using it (without problems) all the way up to 2015. Plus there’s the parent out of touch when it comes to social media websites, as David asks, “What’s Tumblr?” (so we’re supposed to believe that David knows how to FaceTime, and is aware of Facebook and Instagram, but not Tumblr? Either that or Chaganty is merely having a dig at Tumblr).
With computer screens as our gateway, it does hamper Searching with a few limitations. In particular, the actors often have to act to screens rather than physically face-to-face. It also says a lot that those few face-to-face moments make for highlights. The film is essentially carried by John Cho (who is also a co-producer) as we follow his search. There are the obligatory shots of him just sat there looking sad and weary, but he excels as he reacts to certain leads and clues (probably the only time where we’ll see a character lose his shit after finding a Poké Ball). As the story of his missing daughter becomes a news item, David even takes the time to look at the online reaction as he sees #FindMargot start trending. Someone also offers the possibility that #DadDidIt, and there’s even a reference to Gone Girl.
While social media sites proclaim to keep us connected, Chaganty presents them as a double-edged sword. They prove to be an invaluable source of information for David, but his discoveries later cause him to confess to Detective Vick, “I didn’t know her… I didn’t know my daughter.” Given the people involved in Margot’s life, the film goes down multiple avenues when it comes to telling the story of her disappearance. Each one could be taken to its logical conclusion and would make for a satisfactory film. But Chaganty goes one step further and delivers a payoff that you will not see coming.
Searching tells a familiar story, but Chaganty tells it in a unique way. One could argue that it does not look cinematic, but it hooks you in with an emotional opener and throws multiple clues that actually manages to keep it exciting as you find yourself second guessing just how it’s all going to end.