Directed by: Aneesh Chaganty Written by: Chaganty and Sev Ohanian
Film reflects reality, and with cell phones and social media becoming an increasingly prominent part of our world, a film like Searching was inevitable. It is a movie entirely set on screens. Its prologue is presented via files and chat messages sent on a PC. As the film progresses it becomes more traditional in its aesthetic, however, all the scenes remain on-screen somehow: they are shown on webcam feeds, online videos, a camera viewfinder, etc.
Film’s commitment to depicting contemporary technologies can have mixed results. At times new technologies are depicted as they facilitate unique kinds of stories (eg Ingrid Goes West and Eighth Grade). At other times, however, these technologies seems to make it onto the screen simply because they are “in.” Searching doesn’t quite fit into either of these boxes. At times I felt its commitment to being all on screen was a gimmick. Much like “3-D” I noticed the schtik for a few minutes and then forgot about it. At other times, however, I found the movie to very much be a commentary on its featured mediums.
Searching is the story of a father, David (John Cho) who comes to report his daughter Margot (Michelle La) missing. When asked to help Detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing) with the case by providing details about his daughter’s life, David begins to worry that he does not know his daughter as well as he would have liked. He thus logs in to her social media accounts and begins to try and identify who her friends are.
I suppose the reason part of me wants to dismiss Searching’s all-on-screen approach as a gimmick is that, independent of its technological elements, Searching is a very well constructed thriller. It is replete with provocative red herrings and well-placed details of relevance (and seeming relevance) along its way. The film’s ultimate theme (I can’t be too specific without spoiling it) is parent-child relationships. Searching does not end as say Ingrid Goes West does, in a way that truly cements it as a tech era fable. I was thus left asking, why did it all have to be on screens? Is it mere tribute to the ever-growing church of the smartphone?
Upon further reflection, however, I came to appreciate the observations Searching makes on internet culture, even as they may not be the film’s defining feature. One recurring character in Searching uses violently vulgar language on his social media pages. While one might expect this character’s rhetoric to have subtext, it ultimately doesn’t; and thus the film shows how truly vacuous online nastiness can be. On a related note, the film also depicts the stark difference between how people express themselves online and in person, and shows the various ways in which this can be very disorienting for those who don’t know how to balance cyber and non-cyber realities. Perhaps most importantly, the film illustrates how the internet allows all people, teenagers included, to expand the depth and detail of their private lives. Thus David, despite being a “good” father: someone who is affectionate and attentive, is left with the feeling he doesn’t know his daughter well: the internet makes this so.
If I were to quibble about anything, perhaps I would argue that Searching’s antagonists are not as fleshed out as they could be, as the film’s reliance on suspense necessitates keeping details about these characters in the dark. Even this, however, is meant as a mild and speculative critique, as given the constraints of the genre, the film actually does a decent job of developing all of its personalities. Overall, Searching draws a nice balance between engaging plot-development and topicality. And necessary or not, the distinct aesthetic doesn’t hurt either.