Modern technology can often be a burden for filmmakers. The whole point of a film is to create problems and obstacles for your characters to overcome, and frankly, it’s harder to create realistic problems if your characters have access to the Internet. Wondering what I mean? Don’t worry, Buzzfeed is all over it.
Thankfully, rather than avoid modern technology, Searching embraces it. It’s a thriller for the 21st century, unfolding completely through technological devices - laptops, cell phones, CCTV, and the all-encompassing world of social media. Uptight widower David (John Cho) leads a fairly normal life and keeps close tabs on his teenage daughter, Margot (Michelle La). When she goes missing, he goes into a frenzy, hacking into her laptop to try to figure out where she may have gone.
Telling a harrowing story through browser windows and FaceTime isn’t exactly new - Unfriended did the same in 2014 - but Searching is more family drama thriller than straight up horror. This is perhaps best illustrated in the inventive opening montage, which catches the audience up with this small, tight-knit family through familiar technological touch stones. We watch operating systems advance, little Margot grow up via desktop backgrounds, pop ups for piano lessons and doctors appointments and home videos saved on the hard drive. We all love to document our lives, and Searching begins by reflecting that back on us. It’s clever and immediately endears you to this family, particularly when you piece together how David became a widower.
But that’s only the beginning, and Searching doesn’t want to just show you the saccharine side of technological documentation. First time feature director Aneesh Chaganty first made a name for himself directing Google ads, which is why he’s able to convey so much through a limited screen. Once Margot goes missing, David begins to see that people can lead double lives on the Internet, even his daughter. He cycles through her social media sites like any dad would, with concern and confusion, at one point asking, “What is a Tumbler?” As he dives deeper, we’re able to watch his reactions as he comprehends that his little girl has been dealing with much more than she was letting on. As the clues pile up, the audience feels as puzzled as David, trying to weld a solution together.
Casting John Cho as the lead, and making the family entirely Asian-American, is an incredibly smart move. Not only does it reflect modern America, but Cho has just the right amount of charm and humility so that his fears and reactions always feel warranted and empathetic. He’s such an intensely normal guy that he keeps the high-concept digital setting grounded. Which is good, considering the film is almost entirely a close-up of his face.
Searching starts to lose steam as the mystery unravels and its digital constraints make it harder to up the drama and tension. As much as Chaganty tries to deliver a really good thriller, his inventive premise holds the film back from being as effective as it could be.
That said, Searching is incredibly fun to watch, even just to see how you can pull off a film from a laptop screen. I’m sure it won’t be the last of its kind to attempt a digital-only medium, but it certainly deserves praise for its creativity and boldness. And, hey, giving the world almost two hours of a close-up of John Cho’s face ain’t so bad either.