Director: Aneesh Chaganty
Writers: Aneesh Chaganty & Sev Ohanian
Composer: Torin Borrowdale
Starring: John Cho, Sara Sohn, Michelle La, Joseph Lee, Debra Messing
Searching was not a film on my radar until I started hearing all of the positive buzz surrounding its release late last month. Having seen it twice now I can say affirmatively that it’s one of the best mystery thrillers of 2018 and I would thoroughly recommend that anyone interested in seeing this at all avoid trailers and go in blind. You’ll be treating yourself to one of the biggest surprises of the year if you do!
Violence/Scary Images: A man gets into a fight with a teenager.
Language/Crude Humor: One F-word, a couple S-words, no religious profanity, several milder swear words like h*** and d***.
Drug/Alcohol References: Multiple references to smoking marijuana.
Sexual Content: Nothing depicted.
Spiritual Content: Some references to religion.
Other Negative Content: None.
Positive Content: Positive themes about relationships and technology.
The logline to Searching reads like a list of story concepts and gimmicks that have been well played out in the past several years of Hollywood. Missing person stories have been done in films such as Taken, Prisoners, and Gone Girl all attaining mega success with different variations of the same basic conceptual story of a father figure looking to rescue his loved ones. Doing a film entirely from the perspective of a computer screen has been done before with Unfriended and Unfriended 2: The Dark Web. Neither of these films is fondly remembered for their interesting exploration of the ideas that shooting a film like that could provide.
Despite all odds, however, Searching is something of a minor miracle. It’s a tight, highly creative, and suspenseful thriller and an exploration of the role technology plays in modern relationships. I wouldn’t have guessed it based on the pitch but the film really is saved by clever execution and well-thought-out story beats.
Searching is an exercise in managing limitations. If you have to tell an exciting story entirely from the perspective of a laptop computer screen then you need to work out intelligent ways for characters to communicate in visually impactful ways and conceive excuses for every one of these interactions to involve using a computer. As the film presents our characters they’re a group of largely tech-savvy young parents who use technology as a family bonding tool.
It’s never clear just how tech-savvy the protagonist David Kim is. He’s clearly an engineer who uses telecommunication regularly for his job but he’s also rather behind when it comes to figuring out things like social media and live streaming. This is part of the point. The thematic core of the film is about a dad reconnecting with his partially estranged daughter by exploring her life through her digital footprint, pouring through strange expected depths and realizing things you never knew about your loved one. It’s just unfortunate that the film doesn’t iron out a few rough corners.
The film’s real creative strength lies in its ability to conceive every point by point step of the way for David Kim to systematically deconstruct his daughter’s life through his own tech savviness. Kim’s journey is a constant maze of complex psychology, roadblocks, and red herrings all bolstered by a very real time limit as every day potentially separates him farther from his daughter. Searching‘s greatest strength, of course, is its visual language.
With such specific limitations questions like framing, visual motion and what you can even show come into question and the film admittedly does cheat a bit. There is a scene that’s shot on security cameras being displayed onto a laptop that stretches credulity a bit but it’s one of the few moments that push the film’s logic into contrivance and it doesn’t contradict the character motivation built up to this point.
There are a couple major nitpicks that can be leveled, including the opening sequence. It’s vital for setting up character beats for later in the film but it’s clearly attempting to draw from the well that Up used in its opening and here it rushes through some of the character development too quickly and looses some of the emotional effect. We never really get a chance to know the mother character beyond what she means to our two main characters with drains hurt’s the film emotionally.
Additionally, Without the film’s central perspective gimmick, it would lose a tremendous amount of its strength. The story’s well-trodden territory to the point where if it wasn’t totally being told from the perspective of these character’s desktops it would probably wouldn’t be all that interesting. It would merely be another Taken ripoff, albeit one of the stronger ones. Nitpicks aside Searching is spectacular. It is definitely going to be high on this year’s list of best films as it deftly forges a new space for itself as something creative and new in a sea of average. It’s not a new story but a story told in a new way and that way is exciting and fresh.
The Bottom Line