REVIEW – ‘Searching’

It’s been almost 20 years since The Blair Witch Project essentially created an entirely new genre of cinema. In that time, we’ve been overloaded with dozens of “found footage” style thrillers. The results have been varied and the genre now feels terribly exhausted. Three years ago, the bloody (and underrated) horror flick Unfriended twisted this tired concept into new ground by keeping its action entirely localised within a computer screen. Somehow, it wasn’t anywhere near as frustrating to watch as it initially appeared.

It’s a conceit which connects by playing on the very fact we spend so much of our lives looking at screens. You’re looking at one right now. The idea to set a film within those very screens is almost too clever for its own good. The problem with most examples of the found footage genre is they so often fail to offer up an interesting storyline and engaging characters to match their flashy gimmicks. Thankfully, this year we’re given a film that succeeds on all counts.

From first-time feature director (and former Google employee) Aneesh Chaganty, the grippingly tense and wildly thrilling Searching is a film that initially captures attention with its gimmick but truly shines thanks to the sublime film found within. Both a technical and narrative triumph, the film is showcased exclusively through laptop screens, surveillance cameras, and smartphones to dazzling effect. But, the film elevates itself above its stratagem with a genuinely suspenseful and emotionally engaging plot, some truly terrific acting, and ingenious storytelling techniques that will keep you guessing until the very end.

Beginning with a supremely crafted and deeply emotional prologue sequence, we meet the Korean-American Kim family of San Jose, California through a series of digital moments capturing the family’s formative years. We’re shown pieces of home movies of young Margot (Kya Dawn Lau, Megan Liu and Alex Jayne Go), as she learns to play piano, cooks gumbo in the family kitchen with her doting mother, Pamela (Sara Sohn), and goofs around with her proud father, David (a sensational John Cho). But tragedy soon strikes when Pamela is diagnosed with lymphoma. Her tough battle is documented with photos, videos, and calendar appointments (your heart will break when a click of the mouse sends one particular calendar event to the recycle bin) which point to a hopeful recovery that sadly never materialises.

Jumping forward to present day, Margot (Michelle La) is now a 16-year-old high school student and David a forty-something widower. After the loss of Pamela, the pair naturally share a deep connection and goofy rapport, typified by their constant communication via text messages and David using FaceTime to cheekily remind his daughter of her forgotten chores. While David isn’t naive to think his teenage daughter isn’t keeping a few secrets from her father, as all teenagers do, he’s entirely trusting of his responsible daughter. That all changes the night Margot fails to return home from a study session at a friend’s house.

David awakes to several late-night missed calls from Margot, dismissing them as nothing more than his daughter attempting to let him know she’s spending the night elsewhere. But anxiety begins to arise when Margot uncharacteristically fails to read or respond to his numerous texts during the day. Worse still, David notices Margot has strangely left her laptop on the kitchen bench at home. As he frantically begins to contact the few people in Margot’s life he’s mildly aware of, David is at a loss to explain his daughter’s whereabouts and must face the undeniable fact that she is indeed missing.

With nowhere else to turn and desperate for help, David reports Margot’s disappearance to the local police, with Detective Rosemary Vick (a wonderful Debra Messing) assigned to the case. But as the hours tick by and the investigation appears to be making little ground, David takes matters into his own hands. Cleverly hacking into his daughter’s laptop, the panic-stricken father begins to travel down the disturbing and perplexing rabbit hole that is Margot’s online life, which may contain the clues to her baffling vanishing act.

It may sound like your average missing person thriller, and on its surface it certainly is. It delivers many of the familiar tropes you expect from a tale filled with twists, turns, red herrings, dead ends, and shocking revelations. But thanks to its masterful use of 21st-century technology, Searching instantly becomes something entirely fresh, wonderfully striking, and brilliantly genuine. That authenticity flows from the wise decision to license the use of real-world juggernauts of the online world. Everything from Windows, Skype, Facebook, YouTube, Tumblr (“What’s a tumbler?”) and Apple’s neverending array of products are utilised to create the film’s expansive online setting. It’s a subtle touch but it gives the film the earnest sensibility it so desperately needs.

Twitter also gets in on the act by highlighting how a case like Margot’s can bring out the ridiculous hypocrisy and instant keyboard warrior judgement within the social media community. As the missing person case receives more media attention, #FindMargot naturally begins trending, and suddenly Margot’s classmates who barely know her are recording their devastated reactions at her disappearance for their own slice of viral fame. Online trolls add fuel to the fire by decreeing David as the guilty party, with #DadDidIt taking an equal share of the Twitter spotlight. It’s a biting comment on how absurd the online world can become in the midst of a devastating tragedy and a stark reminder our baseless online judgements of a stranger’s life can be seen by that very person.

Chaganty’s captivating tale is expertly crafted by editors Will Merrick and Nick Johnson, who genuinely demand notice come awards season. Assembling the dizzying pieces of this complicated mystery is a monumental task, particularly when the action moves into real time. It’s a juggling act many films attempt but so often fail. But these two masters perfectly handle the challenge, creating a final result that’s as tense as it is entertaining. The pair wisely move the film along at a cracking pace, which only adds to the sense of harrowing urgency the narrative demands.

As glorious as the technical achievements of this film are, they are nothing without great characters and wonderful acting to back them up. Carrying the hefty weight of this film entirely on his shoulders is John Cho, who, after 20 years in the business, is finally given the opportunity to play the leading man. He takes this chance and runs with it, delivering a convincing and engaging performance that cements his place as a true star in the making. Cho runs the full gambit of emotions here and never once falters. Amazingly enough, he also becomes the first Asian-American actor to play the leading role in a mainstream Hollywood thriller. But this is far from stunt casting. He deserves this role and earns your respect.

Cho’s sensational turn is further boosted by great supporting performances from Messing and La. The no-nonsense, stoic Detective Vick is a real departure for Messing, given she’s so adept at playing wild and goofy characters, like her iconic Grace Adler from resurrected TV comedy Will & Grace. It requires restraint from a performer so akin with farce, and Messing delivers the goods. She keeps Vick’s cards close to her chest, hinting at hidden layers which Messing takes great delight in unfolding. La is handed a rather thankless role, given Margot is absent for most of the film. But she steals focus when given the opportunity, managing endearing chemistry with Cho, even if the two are never in the same room together.

There are some minor issues here, but none so fatal to destroy the entire picture. While still enjoyable, the ending feels a little convoluted and forced, which is a shame in a film that feels so powerfully authentic. The narrative reaches for plot twists that make little sense and the film’s shocking conclusion doesn’t quite land its intended gut-punch. Torin Borrowdale‘s melodramatic score also tends to pull you out of the context of the film’s cyberspace setting and makes you wonder if a score-less production would have been more effective.

There will be much made about the technical achievements of Searching, and rightly so. Chaganty has crafted a remarkable and sophisticated debut film that uses its trapped-in-a-screen conceit with near-perfect execution. As writer/director, he has constructed a blazingly clever piece of cinema that grabs your attention from the opening frame and never once lets go. Both a thrilling mystery and an engaging drama, Searching is socially-aware, ingeniously original, and utterly spectacular cinema.

Distributor: Sony Pictures
Cast: John Cho, Debra Messing, Michelle La, Sara Sohn, Joseph Lee
Director: Aneesh Chaganty
Screenplay: Aneesh Chagany, Sev Ohanian
Producers: Timur Bekmambetov, Sev Ohanian, Adam Sidman, Natalie Qasabian
Cinematography: Juan Sebastian Baron
Production Design: Angel Herrera
Music: Torin Borrowdale
Editors: Nicholas D. Johnson, Will Merrick
Running Time: 101 minutes
Release Date: 13th September 2018 (Australia)

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