Modern technology has stretched its tendrils into nearly every aspect of our daily lives, so it only makes sense that cinema would integrate our reliance on its convenience into a prominent mode of narration. While there have been films in the past that have existed entirely on the illuminated screens of electronic devices (the most widely-recognized being 2015’s Skype-based paranormal murder mystery Unfriended and its sequel released earlier this summer), they have, thus far, felt more like artistic experiments in filmmaking than compelling means of storytelling. But after the wobbling baby steps, Aneesh Chaganty’s Searching seems to have discovered a way to soar past the expected limitations of its central gimmick, taking the time to fully explore our thorny relationship with technology.
David Kim (John Cho) is faced with every parent’s worst nightmare when his teenage daughter (Michelle La) goes missing. Unsatisfied with the police investigation (led by Debra Messing’s Detective Rosemary Vick), he decides to take matters into his own hands, commandeering his daughter’s laptop to trace her activity across social media outlets and video chat rooms. Scared to face the truth that he was completely in the dark about his daughter’s personal life (“They didn’t know her. They didn’t know my daughter.”), David soon discovers that we all keep secrets hidden from our parents. In order to bring her back to safety, he must track her digital footprint, uncovering the online persona she’d crafted for herself.
“…take matters into his own hands, commandeering his daughter’s laptop to trace her activity across social media…”
In order to translate the horrors of losing a child onto the incandescent glow of a laptop, Chaganty must jump through many narrative hoops in order to keep the audience engaged. Thankfully, he is able to take what could have easily been a toothless Mac commercial and add intense tonal layers, from gut-wrenching suspense to deep emotional resonance. For David, every buffering screen or social media roadblock plays like a knife in the chest. The film continuously finds clever ways to build upon its central framing device, mainly because it is so firmly grounded in reality. Viewers will recognize the central struggle, as they too have used technology as a deliberate chronicle of their our memories and experiences.
Searching really has almost no fat on its bones. Each of its intricate threads is woven into the overarching tapestry, as seeds are planted throughout the runtime that all lead to a satisfying payoff. While it is a mishmash of genres, the film remains an effective thriller, and its suspenseful turns never feel cheap. The sharp, thoughtful script (co-written by Chaganty and Sev Ohanian) sublimely understands the mind of the film’s viewers and works to stay five steps ahead of them. Chaganty accurately predicts which direction his audience with travel down this labyrinthine rabbit hole, and he is consistently able to preemptively knock out any questions they may have on the other side.
“…taking a familiar premise and invigorating it along with biting commentary on viral video culture…”
Thematically relevant and persistently moving the form forward, Searching is an emotional roller coaster, taking a familiar premise and invigorating it along with biting commentary on viral video culture. As Aneesh Chaganty manages to skillfully display emotional chemistry over web browsers, his grand ambition pays off in spades. Unlike other films that take place entirely on screens, Searching is able to fully immerse the audience into the world it’s created, allowing them to interact with the mystery of it all. It is a unique step forward that handsomely flaunts its immense knowledge of the art of storytelling.
Searching (2018) Directed by Aneesh Chaganty. Written By Aneesh Chaganty, Sev Ohanian. Starring John Cho, Debra Messing, Michelle La, Sara Sohn, Joseph Lee, Ric Sarabia, Sean O’Bryan.
8 out of 10