If it’s not already reached us, the time is quickly approaching where memories, experiences, and events will be so thoroughly encoded into our gurus and gadgets that entire lives will be accessible at the push of a button. Aneesh Chaganty’s Searching thrives off of this inbound certainty, proving that technology can not only host a complete story, but provide its structure as well. This is not the first time a film’s been told exclusively on the stage of a computer screen, but Searching flips the growing genre on its head. As of now, it’s the best of its kind, but that hardly infers its greatness, especially since its only competition at the moment are two easy-to-forget horror flicks.
Though the young idea of the full-screen motion picture has not yet escaped its tacky feel (I do suspect, however, that films like this will soon be springing out like pop-up ads), Searching excels and is founded on some of entertainment’s oldest and most celebrated pillars. They include innovation, intelligence, and most importantly, passion, generated here by John Cho’s lead performance as David Kim, a father who scours the internet for clues once his 16-year-old daughter, Margot (Michelle La) goes missing.
The events of the film only take place over the course of a few days – less than a week in fact – but David ages years before our very eyes. Not only does he fall victim to the traumatization of such a tragedy, but once he starts to unscramble Margot’s digital persona, he must come to terms with the fact that he really doesn’t know anything about his daughter. Cho’s eyes alone display an ever evolving level of grief.
The presence of a determined and sympathetic detective (Debra Messing) casts a sliver of hope, but through every kind of lens in which we observe David and follow his investigation, we’re also shown the deterioration of the man. At one point, after the news of Margot’s disappearance has reached a national audience, a video emerges online of David interrogating a kid at a movie theater. The comments – which are made mostly by other kids – are hardly civil, let alone considerate given that the man they’re scrutinizing is experiencing a level of pain inconceivable to them.
This is one of the harsher, more depressing portrayals of the internet, and social media in particular, put to film. A lack of sympathy and understanding combined with an unyielding vocal platform creates another source of agony for David. Everybody seems to have an opinion of what’s happening – disgusting theories even point to David as the culprit – and the internet seems to play sanctuary for their relentless statements.
But by allowing David to take control of the search, Chaganty’s also sure to commend the resources the internet provides us. We’re reminded that Google contains a lot of (alarming) information, and watching David attempt to navigate through his daughter’s digital life while also finding the best ways to extract viable information from it is mind boggling.
The filmmakers too find innovative ways to make use of the technologies. This is a smart movie, the result of what surely was a trying screenwriting process. FaceTime replaces face-to-face conversation; old applications like address books as well as new ones like Venmo push the plot forward; and even software provides setting. The opening sequence, in which we learn about Margot’s upbringing and the death of her mother, is presented on an ancient Windows XP background (you know, the green hills and such), while David’s investigation takes place primarily on Margot’s latest MacBook computer. Searching never feels trapped in its confining concept – even internal thoughts are expressed through typed-then-deleted text messages.
That is until the end, where the narrative calls for images and information that are no longer displayed through David’s point of view. Not only is the content itself rather absurd, but it also violates the innovative perspective the film had so well established and executed. Until the end, Searching keeps us invested in these well formulated characters, all of whom are actually pretty fun to learn about despite the horrors they endure.
Searching is presented in such a fascinating way that its best moments suggest a fresh form of storytelling, and its worst moments become tolerable.