Aneesh Chaganty’s Searching is the story of a father desperately searching for his missing daughter told entirely from the perspective of various screens such as phones and computers.
A mystery surrounding the disappearance of a loved one with someone that cares deeply for them frantically trying to piece it together to figure out what happened is fairly old hat as far as narratives go. It’s easy for audiences to invest it because everyone can relate to how they might react if someone they care about disappeared unexpectedly. The real challenge is presenting such a well trodden narrative in a way that stands out and Searching certainly accomplishes that.
For a lot of people modern life means being connected to the internet constantly whether that be on a smartphone, tablet or a computer. So much of our lives are lived online through social media interactions and general distanced communications. This is exactly why making the screens the eyes of the audience is effective because it allows an insight into the characters that we wouldn’t get otherwise. The opening of the film is especially effective in that regard by establishing the family dynamic as well as a tragedy through the use of a powerful score and still images that set the tone for that particular sequence wonderfully. It’s moving, intimate and so cleverly executed that you can’t help but be engaged by what you’re seeing.
The focus of the film is David Kim (John Cho); a grieving father struggling to process his wife’s death while maintaining a healthy relationship with his daughter Margot (Michelle La). When Margot goes missing he is forced to consider his life choices since the death of his wife and face up to the reality of how close he really is to his daughter as a contrast to how close he thinks they are. It’s a revelatory experience for him in terms of his inability to cope with the death of his wife and the lessons he learns about the life his daughter leads help carry the film in really interesting ways.
In order to keep the plot moving the narrative leans into the mystery of Margot’s disappearance and sticks to the gimmick of using different screens to tell the story. To look for clues David trawls through Margot’s online presence by finding ways into her facebook account as well as various other social media platforms that she uses. This grants him access to her friends as well as pieces of information on what she likes to do while also becoming clued in on the sadness and loneliness that infects her life.
The entire film taking place entirely from the perspective of various screens to give the audience a voyeuristic account of various facetime conversations as well as have a webcam’s eye view on phone calls or the frustrating mundanity that he has to endure while constantly worrying about his daughter. It’s very raw and real because the technique allows for a unique look into David’s life that might not be easily achieved through traditional storytelling means.
It’s oddly compelling to watch him look through messages and follow clues that take him to different parts of the internet in order to track down his daughter. The messages themselves are interesting and come across as if real people wrote them. There are even realistic touches such as writing multiple drafts of an instant message before sending it or agonising over what punctuation to use in order to make the tone come across as intended. This is used to great dramatic as well as comedic effect at key points and it’s really gripping to see the required information teased to the audience along with the requisite red herrings and seemingly unconnected small details that become important later on.
John Cho is great as the lead. His performance feels constantly real and he plays a very relatable character who is determined to protect the person he cares most about. His interactions are limited but he mainly shares screen time be it in person or over calls with his brother Peter (Joseph Lee) and the detective in charge of the missing persons case Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing). These interactions serve their purposes and often come across well but there is a forced quality to some of it that comes through. Thankfully the film never tries to develop those two extra characters beyond their purpose and Margot is only characterised in small bursts based on what David learns. This works really well because the film is about David so we only see snapshots of these core relationships as he experiences them. In the case of Margot he is learning about her as he goes so it makes sense that she is something of an enigma throughout.
The film-making style is definitely impressive and is used well throughout but there are points where the associated conceit doesn’t really work. It’s almost as if there was no obvious way to create certain scenarios so one had to be contrived. It happens towards the end and the story does get bogged down in some outlandish coincidences at points that detract from the overall sense of realism and leaves the ending as something that feels unearned.
An excellent mystery plot told in a unique style that is really well used. The perspective being the screens of various devices is really impressive way to tell a story as it allows a unique insight into John Cho’s David with everything depicted feeling a lot more real. It’s very compelling to watch David sift through his daughter’s online presence to piece together her whereabouts while also learning things about her that he didn’t know. It’s a clever conceit that sometimes requires some contrived techniques to allow key scenes to happen and a series of coincidences create an ending that doesn’t quite feel earned but it’s a fresh spin on a really common story that remains gripping throughout.
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