Pacho Velez’s breakthrough documentary “Manakamana,” which he co-directed, consists entirely of people (and goats) riding a cable car up and down a Nepalese mountain. So while he might not seem like the most natural candidate to make a light-hearted documentary about internet dating, “Searchers” dismantles that dumb assumption from its very first shot. Velez is fascinated by how people perform the idea of themselves, whether they’re crammed into a gondola suspended hundreds of feet above a wild valley or swiping through Tinder on their bed in Brooklyn.
By focusing his camera on the faces of 30 (or so) app users as they peruse the digital meat market and reflect on their perfect match, Velez allows their phones to become as much of a looking glass as they are a portal. The result of his little experiment is a warm and compulsively watchable movie that flirts with modern ironies (e.g., our dystopian reliance on algorithms to find real human connection) and asks timeless questions (“u up?”) in order to shine a softer light onto the same tech-era truth that already gave birth to the likes of “Black Mirror”: What someone is searching for can tell you everything about how they see themselves.
Back to that first shot: “Searchers” opens on a 24-year-old guy named Shaq Shaq as he stares just off-camera and passes judgment on the women whose Tinder profiles someone is scrolling through for him offscreen. Velez’s decision to take his subjects’ phones out of their hands is a masterstroke, as that added gap in the decision-making process leaves all sorts of room for the kind of self-reflection that people would rather delegate to their fingers (a faint image of their screens is superimposed over the interview footage). It isn’t long before Shaq Shaq is opening up about getting dumped, as his thoughts on each profile sketch into a quick self-portrait of his own vulnerability. It’s possible he didn’t have a clear sense of his own hurt until he found himself looking for something casual and low-risk — something that might restore the confidence he’s just realizing has been lost.
“Searchers” is full of gently humane moments like that, as Velez’s static camera and sympathetic bedside manner invite his diverse cross-section of subjects to volunteer their most personal feelings by rendering a stream of verdicts about other people. We meet a 35-year-old gay man named Ruddy who rolls his eyes at a tacky picture of a guy posing in front of a super basic tourist destination, only to remember how much he loves to travel. We meet a girl in her 20s who swipes through SeekingArrangement in search of a sugar daddy whose pockets are deep enough to pay her a decent “allowance.” Cathleen, 74, focuses our attention on the involuntary sounds people make as they look for a partner, and the extremely voluntary euphemisms that men her age use when they’re talking about sex. Velez interviews straight men, trans women, people who still live with their parents, parents who still live with their kids, and even “I Am a Sex Addict” filmmaker Caveh Zahedi, who some cinephiles will recognize as a demographic unto himself. Some of them are on Match.com, others on Grindr, Hinge, Bumble, and a handful of apps that will leave coupled viewers feeling like they managed to sneak aboard the last chopper out of Saigon.
All of these people are looking for different things, but all of them are reflecting on themselves; if most of us default to a self-conscious mode during in-person dates, always wondering if we’re doing enough to make a good impression, the app experience seems to give users the space to put themselves first, and filter the strangers inside their phone through the prism of what they want. Velez doesn’t worry too much about the potential implications of that phenomenon (could it inspire people to obsess over their own shadow or miss the forest for the trees?), as he’s more interested in the idea of these apps as a funnel that challenges people to think about how they’ll fit themselves through it and what they’ll look like when they come out the other side. In an endearing touch, it helps that Velez isn’t just a director — he’s also a client. Seeing the filmmaker get hung up over the profile prompt “I like to make…” is a bittersweet testament to how deep these innocuous questions can dig. It feels telling that he lands on “New York Times recipes” and not, say, “films.” This documentary might do more for him in the dating department than OKCupid ever has.
And here’s hoping that it does, because finding a partner has never been this hard before. “Searchers” appears to have been shot entirely during the pandemic, and despite only featuring a few errant glimpses of the city in motion — or perhaps because of that — Velez’s documentary gradually doubles as a vivid snapshot of the isolation that stretched across New York’s (first?) COVID summer. For all of the warmth in Velez’s film, the glimpse of the Free Hugs people doing their thing in Washington Square Park during the middle of a pandemic might be the single most frightening thing you see on a screen this year. But that cursed image aside, this sweet nothing of a movie never sinks into despair. Online dating probably seems like a dead end in the middle of a purgatory, but there’s something hopeful about the idea that — if you search for people on your phone for long enough — there’s a chance you could end up seeing yourself. At the very least, it’s comforting to know that so many other ghosts in this town are stuck inside and looking for the same thing.
“Searchers” premiered in the NEXT section of the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.