Parenting can be a sustained state of worry, once our kids begin to interact with the outside world, away from our watchful eyes. The advent of smartphones and GPS technology has been a balm for such worries by providing instant means of checking up on the wee ones. At the same time, however, the ubiquity of the internet, and particularly social media, has enabled an insidious and pernicious brand of social isolation, allowing cowards and predators to operate under the cover of anonymity. So, as tends to be the case, an advancement in civilization brings with it new hazards.
These realities of our tech-driven world are explored in director Aneesh Chaganty’s first feature-length film, Searching. Simply told, it’s about a father trying to find his missing daughter. However, just as important as the story itself is how that story is told. In the case of Searching, the drama unfolds entirely on computer monitors and other types of “remote” media. The result is a tense, paranoid thriller in which a loved one can easily slip between the digital cracks, and where not even the fastest processor speed can get answers fast enough for a desperate and terrified parent.
David Kim (John Cho) is a loving husband and father who, at the beginning, enjoys a perfect life: a happy family and all the physical accoutrements of a successful upper-middle class existence. Almost immediately, however, we learn that his wife Pamela (Sara Sohn) has cancer, and passes away early on. We fast forward several months to find both David and his teenaged daughter Margot (Michelle La) getting on with life as best they can. One evening Margot tells her dad she’s heading out for a study group that’s going to run late, a perfectly normal scenario for which the trusting David gives his blessing. She does not return home. Two missed phone calls in the middle of the night, while David slept, are all he has to go on. He immediately begins to contact the school and all of Margot’s contacts and friends to ascertain her whereabouts. To his growing dismay, he learns that, maybe, his daughter is not the sweet, innocent kid he believed her to be.
Unlike the horror film Unfriended, which told its story in real time and on a single computer monitor, Searching takes place over nearly two weeks and so, by necessity, has to behave more like a conventional film. It accomplishes this by cutting to a variety of different kinds of monitors – other computers, cell phones, TV news broadcasts, security camera footage, and so on. At a couple of points, we realize we are looking at Pamela’s computer because it is an older Windows interface (David is a dyed-in-the-wool Mac guy). It’s a subtle touch, but still affecting. The camera will also, occasionally, employ standard film techniques, like slowly zooming in on a key portion of the monitor, to maximize an emotional moment. And the sharp-eyed viewer will be paying attention to all details flashing across the screen, as even innocuous background elements may hold clues to the mystery. Even though it lacks Unfriended’s fabricated single-shot effect, the presentation still casts a spell.
Editing and the strategic deployment of various types of windows and data help to keep us engaged, but it would all just be an empty gimmick without the strong performances at its center. John Cho is one of our best, most reliable Everyman actors, and he plays David, a good, grief-stricken man who finds himself in a simply overwhelming situation, with finely calibrated pathos and ever-shifting emotions. His performance is, by necessity, the anchor of the film, and considering he spends so much of this film alone, no other actors to react to and talking into a computer’s camera, Cho works the role masterfully. Debra Messing, as the detective leading the search for Margot, is operating in a completely different galaxy from the rom-com roles she has been known for; she imbues Detective Vick with a grim, steely intensity that women do not often get the chance to play in studio films. And Michelle La, as the missing Margot, gives such a subtle performance that, combined with the movie’s format and editing, we, like David, are never quite sure what’s going on with her, even before her disappearance. It’s a sly, naturalistic portrayal that keeps us guessing for much of the tale.
As a thriller, Searching has your requisite twists and reveals, and make no mistake, the film will keep you riveted the entire runtime. Now to be honest there are a couple of story elements that felt like a stretch in logic, or where information was made available a little too conveniently. And David Kim seems to be just this side of superhuman, in terms of his proficiency at figuring out a dozen different ways to get an answer on the Internet. I am not sure I would have been able to think of so many sleuthing methods if I were in his shoes – I’m sure I’d spend most the time just sitting in a corner, blubbering, devouring Pringles and crying out, “Where’s my baby?!?!” – but maybe that says more about me than about this resourceful fictional character.
Point is, although not all of its twists and turns land perfectly, Searching is nonetheless a gripping thriller. And for his debut film, Chaganty has crafted a spot-on artistic statement about how our new, myriad forms of communication can actually make communication, especially the meaningful kind, that much harder. Using computer displays to demonstrate how we can lose our children in a slipstream of likes, follows and swipe-lefts perfectly conveys, in the most modern context possible, every parent’s worst nightmare.