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Searching

Reviewed by Josh Schulze.

Director Aneesh Chaganty
Length 1 hour 42 minutes
Certificate 15
Rating ******----
Filmmaking: 3  Personal enjoyment: 3

Photo from the article Searching (2018), the latest in a string of films that take place predominantly on a desktop, is an engrossing experience that makes able use of its formal constraints to deliver a satisfying and unique take on the missing person thriller. Producer Timur Bekmambetov, the Russian-Kazakh director of Wanted (2008) and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (2012), has been bashing out several laptop-based movies over the past couple of years (including both the Unfriended films, and the upcoming Profile (2018) which he himself directed), and appears in no mood to stop doing so. His Screenlife software enables him to produce these films on shoestring budgets, and their very nature makes them compatible with a wider variety of distribution strategies beyond theatrical release. Indeed, there is the argument to be made that these films function better on an actual desktop, and not on the big screen. But these kinds of discussions have a tendency to detract from the merits of each individual film - so on that note, let’s return to Searching.

The film stars John Cho in a career-best performance as an estranged father, who desperately uses every resource available to try and find his missing daughter. His wife Pamela (Sara Sohn) passed away some years prior to the action of the film, which director Aneesh Chaganty helps us understand through a densely packed opening montage that chronicles her diagnosis with lymphoma, brief remission, sudden relapse, and eventual death. The sequence has drawn several comparisons to the first 10 minutes of Pixar’s Up (2009) for its economical approach to turning necessary exposition into audience tears, while anchoring itself firmly in the past by taking place on a Windows XP interface. This element of the opening moments makes the shift to a contemporary Mac desktop somewhat jarring, and equally so when the film returns to XP later on - by which point it possesses an almost spectral quality.

When David (Cho) wakes up one day to find his daughter Margot (Michelle La) absent, and some missed calls from her on his phone, it isn’t long before the police and Detective Vick (Debra Messing) diagnose the situation as a missing person case. From this point onwards, David himself assumes the role of amateur detective and pulls together a wide range of information from the Internet, social media, and Margot’s own laptop, in order to piece the puzzle together. The film cleverly unravels its central mystery by drawing on the audience’s literacy in these digital interfaces, and in doing so comments on the generational gap between so many parents and their teenagers. David often finds himself out of his own depth exploring some of the more teen-centric sites like YouCast - at one point he remarks, “what’s a tumbler?” - and yet his love for his daughter drives him on without condition. This element, the film’s emotional core, is undoubtedly Searching’s greatest asset, and ensures we forgive some of its less credible forays later on. Many have remarked quite harshly on the film’s eventual departure from the confines of David’s laptop, as it begins to liberally employ news coverage to tell the story, and even footage of a police interrogation (inexplicably acquired by David from his personal computer) as a convenient way of spelling out its final twist.

In this respect, it bares a closer resemblance to a film like Noah (2013) than to the Unfriended films in both its employment of montage, and its story taking place over several days as opposed to in real-time. It also uses close-ups and zooms to draw our eyes to the right information, and a wider range of actual screens than one desktop alone. These are the kinds of problems such a film needs to solve if it wishes for its action to occur in multiple locations. While some critics have expressed their wishes for the film to employ a more traditional method of shooting its material in conjunction with the desktop footage, for me, it is more a matter of refining the action in a way that allows the interface to do more work than the actors. Films such as Unfriended (2014) and Noah made expressive use of the movements of a cursor, or the title of a playlist, or the state of folders on a desktop. For Searching, the greatest source of expression is still the on-screen performance of John Cho.

However, these comparative shortcomings should not detract from a film that demonstrates a commendable commitment to solving its central mystery, which unfolds in a visual environment wholly characterised by information. The middle stretch that shows David collecting anecdotes and clues about his daughter, like a 21st century Philip Marlowe, are easily the film’s strongest. They make perfect use of the interface, while underscoring more broadly the quite sinister possibility that we probably don’t know as much about each other as we might like to think.

This review was published on October 30, 2018.

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