4.5 out of 5 stars.
On the surface, “Searching” is the story of a father looking for his missing daughter, but the real horror isn’t so much the mystery as it is the role technology plays in our lives. For his feature film debut, director Aneesh Chaganty shot “Searching” entirely through small screens. The characters interact through Facetime, text, and email; they browse the internet and social media. It sounds like an impossible feat, but Chaganty pulls it off with style, enhancing a movie that is already thrilling and also surprisingly heartfelt.
John Cho stars as David Kim, the father of a teenaged daughter, Margot (Michelle La). His wife Pam (Sara Sohn) passed away after a long battle with cancer. Through emails, uploaded photos and videos, and calendar events, the opening of the film unfolds in an emotional sequence detailing most of Margot’s childhood, from piano lessons to her mom getting sick and then going into remission, to her relapse. Since then, David and Margot’s relationship has been strained. She spends a whole night out with her study group, calling her father three times in the middle of the night; he doesn’t hear from her again, and after finding out that she didn’t go to school that day and hasn’t gone to her piano lessons in six months, David realizes Margot is missing. With the help of Detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing), he starts to piece together clues using what is on Margot’s laptop, and quickly realizes based on her activity online that he didn’t really know his daughter as well as he thought.
Cho’s performance is the anchor of the movie. It’s through his eyes that we are watching everything unfold, and from his perspective that we see him conduct research online, or talk to potential suspects in a desperate attempt to uncover any information at all about Margot. His performance is remarkable, showing Cho’s range as an actor in a way that we’ve never seen before, and that begs the question: why isn’t he given more leading roles like this? “Searching” is a much a story of parental love as it is about a missing person, and that love shows through him at all times, happy or sad or desperate.
The story is also compelling, with lots of insane twists and turns—the twists at the end of the film maybe start to be a bit much, but it’s also both fun and intense for the audience to piece together the mystery alongside Cho. The script handles both the mystery thriller and the family drama aspects of this story exceptionally well, and it’s because this story has such a big heart that it elevates itself above other mysteries, while also immediately investing the audience in its characters and making sure they care about getting Margot back as much as David does.
In fact, the story is so good that “Searching” still would have been great without shooting it entirely through phone and laptop screens. But it’s that added twist that gives the film even more style and originality, while also adding another layer to the story. There are many extended scenes where we don’t see the characters or hear them talk, but are instead reading their texts back and forth, or watching them click around the internet, but there’s still so much to unpack in those scenes. The start of typing something, but then deleting it, the momentary hesitation before clicking on a webpage, the photos a character chooses to save or delete—all of these things tell us more about the characters, specifically David, and what they are feeling in that moment. It easily could have come off as gimmicky, but it doesn’t; it’s masterfully done, and also provokes the audience to consider just how much of our lives we see through a screen, and how our activities online have consequences in the real world.
“Searching” won multiple awards at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and is gradually gaining more attention through word of mouth. It deserves all that praise and more, and hopefully audiences will continue to seek it out—and maybe think twice about what they post online.
Runtime: 102 minutes. Rated PG-13.