To my knowledge, the first mainstream release to utilize the “entire movie on a laptop screen” gimmick was 2015’s Unfriended. That film impressed me. It was mean-spirited, biting and had a lot of relevant things to say. First time director Aneesh Chaganty’s Searching premiered at Sundance earlier this year. It uses the same technique (I’ll stop calling it a gimmick) to vastly different, more rewarding results.
David (John Cho) is a widower and father of 15-year-old Margot. She’s an overachiever who wants to make her departed mother proud, and the two of them are struggling to move forward in her absence. One night, she isn’t where she’s supposed to be, and it soon becomes apparent that she’s gone missing. Detective Vick (Debra Messing) is assigned to his case, and all kinds of questions are raised, leading David to wonder how well he truly knew his daughter.
This movie is a technical marvel. It aims to impress the viewer very early on. The opening sequence of this film depicts the whole life of this family until the present day through YouTube videos and still photographs. It very strongly reminded me of the beginning of Pixar’s Up. Now, will you be a blubbering mess of tears in the first five minutes of the computer-set thriller? Probably not. But the emotional stakes of this story are set from the very beginning, and that’s what makes it different from a movie like Unfriended. There’s an emotional core here that is evident in every twist and turn.
It’s wildly suspenseful the entire way through. However, it begins to strain near the end as the movie tries to pull so many rabbits out of hats. Because of this, the twist kind of feels like a ‘gotcha,’ but not too much. It’s a script that checks every box and doesn’t leave many plot holes to be discovered, which is very impressive given the limiting nature of this storytelling device. For a first-time director, this is outstanding. Chaganty co-wrote the script with Sev Ohanian, and it will be interesting to see where these names go next.
John Cho is also very impressive, delivering a layered performance in a confined capacity. David’s descent into desperation as he begins to run out of answers feels very real. As he begins to wonder what he could have done differently to help his daughter, the cracks in this family begin to show. Debra Messing is also terrific. She’s such an underutilized actress, especially in film, and I think this film is a reminder of what she can do. Both of these actors do great work in very limiting roles.
It should also be noted what this film silently does for Asian representation in film. With all of the talk recently about Crazy Rich Asians, this accomplishes something different. The film is centered around an Asian family, but their culture and heritage never have anything to do with what’s going on. This is a very diverse film, but it never makes a big deal about it. And maybe that’s what representation truly is.
In the end, Searching is a dense, uniquely thrilling film. It seems so effortless in the way it tells this story from the confines it sets up for itself. It’s very much a ‘how-we-live-now’ kind of movie about the hyperactivity of social media, and how something can explode online. And it’s true, the internet very well could be the death of us all one day. But deep down, it’s a story about the importance of family. It’s an innovative, well-acted nail-biter of a movie.