Aneesh Chaganty’s Searching is the latest and easily the best in a nascent genre that producer Timur Bekmambetov calls “Screen Life” (also the name of the tech that is used to make the movie). There is not a single “traditional” shot in this film: Everything is either framed on a computer screen, viewed through a laptop camera, streaming on a news page or reviewed on surveillance footage. An offshoot to some degree of the now mostly moribund “found footage” esthetic, the “Screen Life” format is relevant–at least for the moment–due to the simple fact that this is indeed how we live so much of our lives these days, through phones, screens, chat rooms, social media, and other digital tools.
But however adept the format’s users are, and director Chaganty is exceedingly skilled at it, you still need a good story and characters to weave all that digital business around. The whiny, self-absorbed kids of Searching’s immediate predecessors, Unfriended and Unfriended: The Dark Web (also produced by Bekmambetov) ultimately became largely annoying despite some of the eerie quality of the stories. But with Searching, Bekmambetov and Chaganty (who also co-wrote the script with Sev Ohanian) manage to assemble a gripping if somewhat conventional plot and place it on the very capable shoulders of star John Cho, best known as Sulu in the recent Star Trek movies.
Aside from telling a largely satisfying tale with decently drawn characters, Searching is groundbreaking for the fact that it’s the first mainstream American studio thriller with an Asian American male as the lead. That’s a big deal in and of itself, although hopefully it won’t be as time goes by. Cultural references are embedded in the movie but not prominent; this is still an American family, but once again it’s clearly refreshing to meet a clan that doesn’t look like every typical movie family since the dawn American cinema.
Cho plays David Kim, a husband and father who has recently lost his wife to lymphoma; we open on their family history in a heartwarming and later heartbreaking montage of photos and videos that seems to have taken a page from Pete Docter’s Up. David is now raising his 16-year-old daughter Margot by himself with all the requisite challenges of single parenthood and, as we learn, a certain amount of unresolved grief. But the Kims seem to be managing okay until Margot doesn’t come home one night from a study group, prompting David to begin a search that starts with unanswered texts and Facetime requests and expands into a mystery that takes place almost entirely within David or Margot’s laptops.
We’ll stop right there to avoid getting into the twists and turns of the plot, but aside from the unique screen format, Searching plays out largely as a conventional thriller, with dead ends, red herrings, undiscovered secrets, and a clutch of suspects all part of the mix. What makes it all hang together is Cho and, to a lesser extent since we see less of her, Michelle La as Margot. We are compelled to care for them from the start and empathize with the tragedy they’ve already endured, but this is aided tremendously by Cho’s vulnerable and anguished work. Increasingly frantic, fearful, and paranoid as he begins to see that he might lose the last vestige of his family, Cho (whose performance in last year’s Columbus was also highly acclaimed) is consistently believable and moving.
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Debra Messing as the frazzled lead detective on the case and Joseph Lee as David’s brother also provide sturdy support, but this is primarily Cho’s spotlight. However, even he struggles during the film’s last act, in which the story and its final answers stretch credibility a bit too thin for the movie to have the emotional resonance it clearly wants to deliver in its final scenes. Searching’s other main weakness is the way in which it jams other aspects of online life into the story without elaborating on them in a fuller, more substantial manner. At one point Twitter and other social media flash mobs decide that Cho is a villain, although a chance to comment on the Culture of Hate and Outrage that has taken over those platforms is rushed through in a few minutes. Better perhaps to leave it for another movie.
Overall though, Searching succeeds at telling its story with clarity and purpose, while keeping us concerned about the fate of Margot and how her father will ultimately deal with it. If you can forgive the last 20 minutes or so and deal with the lack of conventional cinematic composition and esthetics, Searching is absorbing enough as a narrative on its own terms–even as we’re watching it through a highly unusual lens that often reduces our daily lives and connections to fragmentary bursts of information.
Searching is out in limited release this Friday, Aug. 24 and expands nationwide the following week.