by Ken Bakely
An ordinary thriller elevated by an ingenious execution, Aneesh Chaganty’s Searching is the latest in a small field of major films that take place entirely through digital environments. When discussing the first entry in the Unfriended franchise, critic Peter Labuza theorized that such an approach derives its power from the use of familiar visual spaces, putting the viewer into a realm that’s identifiable. When something goes wrong, interrupting the recognizable rhythms of its characters lives, it hits that much harder. It’s no coincidence that the first studio releases bringing this format to a wide audience are predicated on suspense. Capturing humans through webcams, their movements through cursors, and their words through text messages and phone calls, these movies use the most common aspects of new communication in contemporary life. Perhaps the effect could be described as virtual realism: boiled down to its essence, complex visual effects contribute to otherwise well-worn ideas on how to generate fear.
What also helps sell the material is a committed lead performance by John Cho, in the role of David Kim, the widowed father of Margot (Michelle La), a teenage girl who has gone missing. Calls and texts go unanswered, and deep dives through Margot’s online activities reveal elusive acquaintances and countless false leads. Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing), the detective handling the case, encourages David to keep searching through Margot’s digital history, but nothing seems to add up. There are numerous scenes featuring a harried Cho clicking through his daughter’s Facebook friend lists and Instagram posts, looking for anything that could provide answers. Cho is excellent here, his body language in a small square on the corner of the screen evoking emotions to match the text-based nightmares unfolding on the rest of the frame. He’s the emotional core that guides us all back to a simple human element, even as increasingly coincidental third-act plot twists and overlapping false climaxes threaten to overclutter a movie otherwise exemplary in its seeming simplicity.
Besides the script’s near-hackish succession of late rug pulls, Searching makes more concessions to conventional Hollywood filmmaking than the static one-shots of the Unfriended movies, but it’s not all to its detriment. Chaganty zooms in on elements of the screen, focusing on the program, search, or conversation in play at a given moment. Non-diegetic music occasionally plays. And there are scenes outside of the Kim household, captured through news cameras or surveillance footage. It’s an indication that this film is less of a tentative experiment that accidentally adopted a storyline, and more of a working thesis on how to insert classically cinematic devices into the format. Chaganty confidently approaches the material. His sturdy implementation of even the most over-the-top plot points is evidence of his robustness as a director. There’s an argument to be made that the soapish missteps of the script he co-wrote turn into tests of his own abilities in realizing their digital placement.
In that way, Searching represents a shift, moving from purist proof-of-concept to arguing to a mainstream audience that screen capture cinema already fits neatly into the language of movies. Whether this just remains a curious relic of the 2010s or the start something more comprehensive remains yet to be seen, but there’s no questioning that this moves the conceit forward for further tries. Could we see future efforts that pull the format out of genre filmmaking altogether, and into straightforward dramas and comedies? If so, some of the foundation was laid here, as Chaganty stakes his claim in the real world, with its cluttered networks and established histories. An exposition-heavy prologue traces the history of the Kim family, and the progression from Windows XP to sleek Macbooks underline years going by and changes occurring. As David obsesses over every possible theory of his daughter’s disappearance, a computer desktop covered with icons takes the place of a messy bulletin board. When the film is at its most tense, it’s not because it’s slamming us over the head with mindnumbing plot twists, it’s because it’s invoking age-old actions that are implanted in our muscle memory, yet new enough to represent changes in our way of living that we’re experiencing firsthand.