Searching is a very solid thriller in a new cinematic language

By Leigh Monson

   Based on the marketing, it would be very easy to dismiss Searching as a film with a gimmick, and not even one that is entirely original. Films like Open Windows and the Unfriended franchise have had the conceit of taking place on computer desktops while actors speak directly into cameras connected to Skype and browse the internet to convey plot information, but Searching is something a bit different. Directed and co-written by Aneesh Chaganty, whose work is otherwise best known through those commercials for Apple products that are filmed on iPhones and demonstrate how technology brings people together, Searching takes the digital landscape of computer screens and translates it into a new cinematic language, staying away from static perspective or the restrictions of being bound to one screen for the entire film's runtime, and instead telling a story of technological interconnection in a circumstance where people feel furthest apart.
   David Kim (John Cho) is the single father of Margot (Michelle La), an average teenage girl by David's reckoning. The two were devastated by the loss of Margot's mother a couple years prior, and a distance has grown between them, with David incapable of talking about his deceased wife with the only one who can relate to his pain. However, that distance becomes a lot more literal when Margot doesn't come home from study group one night, and as it becomes clear that Margot isn't coming home, David files a missing persons report. Detective Vick (Debra Messing) tells David that the best he can do is investigate his daughter's personal life to get a feeling for why Margot would disappear or possibly run away, and in the process David comes to realize that he might not have any idea who his daughter has become in the years since his wife's death.
   On a base level, Searching is a pretty standard procedural thriller, but it is a remarkably competent one at that. If you've seen a criminal investigation story before, you'll have a general feeling for what is going to be a red herring and what is going to be a genuine plot development, but Searching is so good at keeping the tension persistently in the forefront of David's search that those machinations aren't obvious or distracting. There is a persistent sense of foreshadowing with set-ups that don't feel contrived and payoffs that aren't explicitly predictable, as there are seeds of information planted throughout the narrative that don't feel quite right but aren't suspicious enough on their own to warrant further scrutiny. By the end, though, those seeds flourish into a climax that will make you rethink everything you saw before and admire the craftsmanship necessary to play such a game of misdirection.
   But obviously what makes Chaganty's film stand out is how it was shot, with characters talking to each other through FaceTime and with major plot information communicated through mouse movements and web pages. Cho, La, and Messing all stand up magnificently to the task of acting directly into a laptop camera without it feeling forced or contrived – Cho in particular is masterful at playing the bereaved dad shtick – but what really makes Searching work is how Chaganty understands that technology acts as an extension of ourselves. Whether it is comic confusion as one person fails to understand new forms of social media or the universal grasp we now share over how information connects us, character motivations and experiences are immediately relatable because they are reflective of how each of us relates to our socially necessary devices. There is a subtly disturbing undercurrent to the idea that the new age of privacy dissolution has the potential to save us rather than make us subject to excessive scrutiny, but Searching is less concerned with exploring deep themes of social interconnectivity than it is in seeing how technology connects us at an interpersonal level.
   Searching is a wholly unique venture in style and presentation, but under that shiny veneer is a functional and gripping story that greatly encourages revisitation to recontextualize clues as they first appear. That story isn't itself transcendent, but the manner in which it is told is much more than a gimmick of cinematography, so don't be surprised to see the techniques used in this film pop up elsewhere in the years to come.

4/5 stars
Leigh Monson is technically a licensed attorney but somehow thinks being a film critic is a lot more fun. Leigh loves both award darlings and hilariously bad films, does not believe in superhero movie fatigue, and calls it like he sees it.