Searching elevates its gimmicky premise into an enthralling thriller
As the internet has risen to power, the warning language surrounding it has changed. Its most virulent detractors are less concerned now about the dangers of talking to strangers online than they are about the social effects of the Internet centered society we now live in. Log onto any social media site and you're bound to at some point find a hastily assembled meme or cartoon bemoaning how we seemingly check Facebook more than we read or talk to who's sitting next to us on the bus. It's an argument that's given rise to an intense suspicion surrounding the lives we live online, our obsession with them, and the consequences that privilege may have. From Catfish to this year's superb Eighth Grade, we are exploring the effects of the Internet on film in increasingly diverse ways.
Banking on this interest and the all-computer and phone screens premise of recent horror films such as Unfriended, Searching follows single father David Kim (John Cho, Star Trek) via an electronic point-of-view as he struggles to find his missing 16-year-old daughter Margot (Michelle La). Aiding in his search is seasoned cop Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing, Will & Grace), who instructs David to help her find out everything he can about his daughter in order to try and suss where and why she vanished. As David delves deeper and deeper in his daughter's online life, he realizes she's not entirely who he thought she was and her secrets may be the very thing that have led to her disappearance. At first glance, it seems this film is a regression to the mean in the internet film genre, an overly paranoid cautionary tale that demonizes the technology it portrays. However, Searching is surprisingly smart and entertaining mystery that uses it's premise not to talk down on the internet, but to recognize the complexity of its presence in our lives.
One reason the film works so well is that it has well-defined, empathetic characters at its center. Cho, La, and even Messing's somewhat stereotypical lady cop bring a sensitivity and nuance to their roles that makes the screen technique feel authentic instead of cold. Much of the pressure is on Cho, who takes up a large amount of up-close screen time, and he's more than up to the task. David, who is still reeling from the loss of his wife to leukemia several years prior, is brought to exasperated life by Cho, allowing for the long-underrated actor to really showcase the depths of his dramatic range. He makes David a believable, sympathetic character, which is essential to making the film feel human despite the challenges the all-screen tactic poses to its narrative.
The plot itself is a classically styled mystery, full of your expected twists and turns, but each beat is often more exciting here than in many of the more standard suburban thrillers that have dominated the cinema since Gone Girl became a smash hit in 2014. The case of Margot's disappearance allows for some rather engrossing explorations of the suburban lifestyle, from family dynamics to the image surrounding our friendships and relationships with one another. It's always gripping, but what makes it special is in every scene it always seems to have more on its mind than meets the eye. The film wants to do more than provide a solid popcorn movie; it wants us to question what we would look like in the same scenario.
The film's portrayal of the internet is an intelligent one, examining both the pro and cons of our online lifestyles while never falling prey to the scare tactics we so often see surrounding criticism of the internet. While it's acutely aware of the potential dangers of online anonymity, it also showcases a little explored positive side of our online lives, from the frequent connections we make using apps like FaceTime to the memories we create using our cameras. Memory is in fact an important part of both our online lives and the cinematic experience, and Searching never forgets the debt we owe to the steadfastness of the internet and its ability to keep our memories alive forever. Those we grieve, and the times we shared with them, can last for eternity in the chasms of the internet, and that's a special gift that the film drives home. We can owe all of this to writer-director Aneesh Chaganty, whose previous work as a video creator Google has clearly inspired him to provide a measured take on the internet here.
Searching, like any experimental film, is by no means perfect. Its ending stretches plausibility and the lack of technology knowledge Cho's character exhibits is sometimes beyond laughable. In its second half, as the intensity of the mystery amps up, the film struggles under the weight of its constricting premise, using corny newscasts to provide information to drive the plot forward. But ultimately the film works because it recognizes the humanity, good or bad, behind every online profile and interaction. It provides a taut thriller while also getting introspective about the immense messiness that comes with living in the age of the Internet That's a combination worth writing online about.