Searching is a suspenseful drama, buoyed by its innovative filmmaking style and collection of strong performances by its leads.
Premiering at Sundance earlier this year, the new thriller Searching is now playing in theaters nationwide. Marking the debut of director Aneesh Chagnaty (who also wrote the script), the film is noteworthy for the way in which it tells its story. Searching is set almost entirely on electronic screens, illustrating how technology is an integral part of our lives – for better or worse. That could run the risk of becoming a simple gimmick to make its tried-and-true premise more “modern” for today’s audiences, but the end result is something far more than a simple experiment. Searching is a suspenseful drama, buoyed by its innovative filmmaking style and collection of strong performances by its leads.
David Kim (John Cho) and his wife Pam (Sara Sohn) are two loving parents to their daughter Margot (Michelle La). Over the course of Margot’s childhood, the family chronicles their adventures on their computer, with photos and videos commemorating Margot’s first days of school, her piano lessons, and other special occasions. However, right before Margot begins high school, the Kims are rocked by a tragedy and struggle to adjust to their new lives in the aftermath.
On a night when Margot stays late at a friend’s house for a study group, David falls asleep before she gets back home. The following day, David becomes troubled when Margot doesn’t respond to any of his messages. Filing a missing persons report, David joins forces with Detective Vick (Debra Messing), and the two work together to uncover any clues they possibly can – including whatever’s stored in Margot’s laptop – in an effort to find Margot, before something terrible happens.
As indicated above, Searching is told via computer and smartphone screens, a device that helps elevate the final product. The decision to have the mystery unfold through the devices that consume our everyday existence helps complement the movie’s themes about personal connections and the dangers (and benefits) of technology. Chagnaty never feels limited by working on this canvas, keeping the proceedings visually engaging throughout Searching’s taut runtime and making something mundane like a web search feel very dramatic. There are some neat tricks on display (see: the “sleep screen” transitions to indicate it’s a new day), and the technology component helps Searching feel fresh and unique, despite the on-paper setup (teenage daughter disappears) being familiar.
Searching isn’t just an exercise for a showy new style. It helps greatly that Cho gives one of his finest performances as David. One does not need to be a parent to empathize with his character, with the actor brilliantly portraying the desperation of the situation. What makes Cho’s turn stand out even more is that he has an opportunity to explore various sides of David, taking part in some actions that are morally questionable (but justifiable from his point of view), forcing the audience to contemplate what they would do if they were going through the same thing. Cho has to do much of the heavy lifting and carries Searching on his shoulders, proving he’s a more-than-capable leading man.
With much of the focus on David’s predicament and search for Margot, the supporting cast has less to do by comparison, but are still solid in their parts. Messing is a strong authoritarian presence as Vick, serving as a nice foil for the increasingly concerned and despondent David. The two stars play off each other nicely, despite most of their interactions taking place through FaceTime video chats. Joseph Lee is also good as Peter, David’s stoner brother, who has more layers than one might initially think. As for La’s Margot, she is a little more than just a human MacGuffin, as there are important moments of character shading that clue the audience into the kind of person Margot is. Admittedly, La doesn’t have the biggest role, but she makes for a convincing teenager in her brief scenes.
Even if Searching didn’t make effective use of its technology angle, the core story would still work due to Chagnaty’s script, which packs an emotional punch from its first moments and never holds back. It’s hard to not get caught up in the mystery, and viewers should have fun trying to piece together all the evidence as it comes in. Chagnaty does a solid job keeping viewers on their toes, weaving in several possible leads relatively seamlessly so Searching never feels predictable. In some respects, it actually subverts certain tropes with its twists, making it all the more satisfying an experience.
In the end, Searching is a most pleasant surprise at the tail end of summer, serving up a gripping narrative and an outside-the-box concept that works in spades. Chagnaty announces himself as a director to watch, and it’ll be interesting to see where his filmmaking career goes from here. For those looking for a reprieve from the bigger studio tentpoles of the past few months or something creative to bide the time until the Oscar hopefuls start popping up in theaters, Searching is definitely one to check out on the big screen.
Searching is now playing in U.S. theaters. It runs 102 minutes and is rated PG-13 for thematic content, some drug and sexual references, and for language.
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