Synopsis – After his 16-year-old daughter goes missing, a desperate father breaks into her laptop to look for clues to find her.
My Take – While we keep getting bombarded with a seemingly endless supply of procedurals and true crime documentaries on Television and streaming channels (not that I am complaining), the mystery genre is seemingly dying on the big screen format. It’s not that there are no good stories left to tell, it’s just that people don’t seem to show up for a traditional thriller unless the film is a best-seller adaptation or a star vehicle. Hopefully, things are about to change as this twisty detective thriller from first-time director Aneesh Chaganty, reintroduces the genre with a new spin for the digital age. As first seen in horror films like The Den, Open Window and Unfriended, here too all the action takes place completely on computer screens.
Reportedly shot over thirteen days after two years of preparation in the way of editing and animating, this impressive film highlights the remarkable feats that technology can achieve when used effectively. Backed by ‘Unfriended’ producer, Timur Bekmambetov, this film avoids all found footage gimmicks, and truly treats the internet as the entity it is without any silly exaggerations, fake websites, ignorance and judgements. Instead, this film treats it as a platform to tell a compelling mystery story with an excellent performance by John Cho and a quite honestly revolutionary sense of direction at its center. With an emotional core of family, loss, and grief at its center, the film packs in plenty of twists and turns to keep us hooked all the way to its roller-coaster finale.
Taking place entirely on Skype, Emails, Face-time, YouTube, and anything that shows up on your laptop, the story follows David Kim (John Cho), who recently lost his wife, Pamela (Sara Sohn) to Leukemia, and is coping with her loss with his teenage daughter Margot (Michelle La), with whom he shares a decent relationship, as they usually communicate through the day with texts and Face-time. However, one day David wakes up to see that he has missed two calls from her and notices that she still hasn’t returned from her study group after school.
As hours pass David begins to get frantic and uses her laptop to go through her online social media accounts, calling his brother, Peter (Joseph Lee), and all her friends, desperately looking for clues as to where his daughter might be, realizing that she had many secrets and he really didn’t know her at all. Despite reporting her missing, the police inquiry led by Detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing), are convinced that Margot is fine and probably just ran away as every clue they find is an indication to that. However, David is not convinced and decides to start his own line of inquiry to attempt to uncover what really happened to her.
The film is just excellent all round and to say any more would ruin what is a masterly roller-coaster ride of twists and turns, as the script from director Aneesh Chaganty and writer Sev Ohanian doesn’t let the audience relax even for a moment, spawning more red herrings than a classic Agatha Christie story. Where the similarly styled Unfriended delivered lurid shocks, this film plays on much more commonplace fears, like what could this vague text message mean? Who is this random boy commenting on so many of Margot’s Instagram posts? Why does she have a mysterious Venmo payment on her record? In isolation, any of these things might be easily dismissed, but with his daughter still unaccounted for, David begins to spiral, digging more and more deeply into Margot’s history and discovering how little he knew about his daughter.
The twists here come thick and fast, but so many of them hinge on unfounded assumptions that Margot might be buying something illicit, or hanging out with unsavory people—the kinds of assumptions many of us make whenever we use our computers. There are also various instances where the film becomes smarter than it has any right to be – like the scene where a somber moment is attached to stereo typically sad violin music, but the shot transitions into a YouTube video of someone playing that music and the protagonist listening to it because he’s in the mood to do so. Attention to detail is the key here as director Chaganty finds ways to make us even nostalgic with warm, inviting sounds and visuals of Windows XP and its hilariously terrible user privacy settings that helps solve the case. There are a number of effective moments that place us in David’s head-space, such as a brief pause when he logs into his wife’s old computer to look for Margot’s old best friend’s home phone number and notices desktop’s background, set to a picture of three of them in happier times and these scenes never once feel maudlin or manipulative.
By playing out everything David is doing, usually in a split-screen with his face coming through the webcam next to open social media windows, the film really places you within the story to form a real connection with his character journey. Likewise, his cluelessness about youth internet culture isn’t totally played for laughs, and his reactions to discovering his daughter’s inner life — made concrete by her online presence on that blogging platform as well as a live-streaming site — are full of fascinating pathos that brings a weary sadness to David that manifests itself chiefly in how he talks to Margot: he’s distant, unable to totally tell her how he feels or listen to her problems, and he’s somewhat of a scold as well, chastising her for keeping the trash in the house when it’s her responsibility to take it out.
His dissolution into panic and mania is organic, assisted by the darkened circles under the actor’s eyes, and the film’s ultimate resolution is potent enough to make more than one member of my audience cry. The film employs a style of film-making built for the social media age, whilst operating like a typical suspense thriller. The film does not rely upon these technological platforms as a storytelling gimmick, though. The technological platforms instead are used to better demonstrate the disconnection that can occur between a parent and child when faced with tragedy. The film continuously shows ways in which advancements in technology have dramatically changed family interaction, for better or worse. Since we’re looking through the online world for the majority of the time, the film has a lot to say on the vindictive nature of a mass online audience with no moral boundaries or sense of individual responsibility. There are the ‘Best Dad’ memes, the needlessly speculative neighbors who just want their 15 minutes of fame on TV, the trending ‘dad did it’ hashtag, the endless “thoughts and prayers”, and the flip-flopping of people, through crocodile tears, who now claim to have been best friends his daughter for the sake of ‘views’ and ‘likes’.
Despite how well the film is executed, a few flaws do hold it back from being a masterpiece by a first-time director. The climax of the film and the conclusion we reach to the mystery itself is a bit fantastical and hard-to-buy for my tastes, though it hardly ruins the entire film structurally. In addition, Michelle La as the daughter character is not especially good in the scenes she is featured in, which was perhaps why the only scenes I never felt entirely invested were the ones where she was front-and-center. Considering this is her first feature film role, that’s perhaps simply inexperience coming to the fore, but it still hurts the film when her scenes are sandwich between a fantastic performance from John Cho.
Yes, a big part of the story working so well has to do with the excellent performance from John Cho. Most famously known as Sulu from the Star Trek reboots, the entire premise of the story hinges upon his performance as he is the emotional core of it all. Without him, this film might not be nearly as good. Between this and the small, quiet Columbus from last year, he’s really cemented his talents as a leading man. Debra Messing seems an unusual choice given her comedic roots, but she pulls it off, as the steely and reliable detective who becomes David’s part grief counselor, part friend. Despite its seemingly two-dimensional platform, Cho and Messing manage to sell their on-screen chemistry, especially when they’re rarely in the same scene together. Sarah Sohn and Joseph Lee too manage to make a mark. On the whole, ‘Searching’ is one of the best thrillers I have seen in a while, thanks to its masterfully done compelling story and engaging presentation.
Directed – Aneesh Chaganty
Rated – PG13
Run Time – 102 minutes