[Editor’s note: This review was originally published at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, where it was known as “Search.”]
As technology has infiltrated every aspect of modern living, a number of films have attempted to integrate its influence into their storytelling methods. However, few have gone beyond mastering the basics, like making an on-screen text message look believable. In 2015, the horror outing “Unfriended” took the idea to a new level: the entire feature takes place on a laptop screen and plays off the weird interconnectivity that allows cyber-stalking – in this case, seemingly from beyond the grave – to seep into “real life.” Aneesh Chaganty’s “Searching” similarly blends storytelling with theme, but the final result is something far more inspiring, one that reaches way beyond its initial gimmick to deliver an engrossing ride.
“Searching” opens with the familiar sound of a dial up connection, using its opening minutes to introduce its audience to the Kim family, including father David (John Cho), mother Pam (Sara Sohn), and their growing daughter Margot (played primarily in her teen years by Michelle La). Through the creation of new accounts – first Margot’s log-in for a shared family computer, all the way up to her inevitable Facebook page – and a slew of photos, videos, emails, and calendar reminders, the full scope of the Kim family life is revealed in the minimum of time. So is Pam’s cancer diagnosis, and the opening tracks the eventual outcome of an event that will shape the Kims forever. It’s about to get much worse.
Margot goes missing. At first, it’s not entirely clear to David what’s happened, for two people able to connect through so many different means, it’s shockingly easy for one of them to slip through the cracks. Eventually cognizant of what’s happened (or, at the very least, that something has happened), David’s ratcheting fear is effectively captured through video calls and his constantly Facetime camera, always on. Cho is stellar as the undone dad, and his grounded performance keeps David real and relatable even as the storytelling grows more ambitious.
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“Searching” plays out first on David’s laptop screen, tracking him as he finally involves the cops – including a restrained Debra Messing as a lauded detective who takes on the case – while also attempting to launch his own investigation. Soon, however, he realizes he must go elsewhere: Margot’s laptop, which is full of its own secrets and revelations about what might have led to Margot’s disappearance. Constantly flipping between open browser windows and an increasingly messy desktop only add to the mystery, and Chaganty and co-writer Sev Ohanian frequently drop in tiny tidbits of new information hidden in document names or unread text messages.
It’s a true storytelling feat, married with sharp editing that makes the entire effort not only seamless, but also wholly intuitive. The use of real websites and social media platforms – from YouTube and Gmail to Facebook and Instagram – further sell the conceit, and the only true distraction the film offers is audio that can be billed as too good (the video, however, occasionally times out, real as anything).
As the search for Margot further consumes David, trusty Detective Vick (Messing), and the rest of the community, “Searching” continues to play with its themes of connectivity and the question of how much you can ever really share online. Despite the specificity of its story and the manner in which its told, the issues at hand remain universal, including David’s struggle to connect with his child and the way paranoia can make even the best friends into the worst enemies. Chaganty keeps the tension high, though the film sags in its middle act before zooming into a breakneck final third that’s stuffed with new twists.
It’s that finale when things start to unravel, and the big-time ambition of “Searching ” gives way to an overabundance of information that seems out of place in an otherwise tight and smart film. “Searching” doesn’t require any further narrative tricks to prove Chaganty’s ability to use seemingly huge constraints to weave a unique film, one that maintains a near-perfect connect with its audience.
“Searching” premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Sony Pictures Worldwide purchased it at the festival.