(2018—Director: Aneesh Chaganty)
— by Renard N. Bansale —
(out of 5 stars)
“As a parent myself, I can only imagine what you’re feeling.” — Det. Sgt. Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing) to David Kim (John Cho)
Potential spoilers below
Towards the end of the opening montage in Searching, Margot Kim (Michelle La) logs onto her Facebook account and clicks on the post box. No words are typed. The text cursor blinks, blinks, blinks. Adjacent, the words “What’s on your mind?” Finally, Margot scrolls down her feed to a photo of her mother Pamela (Sara Sohn), clicks, holds, and drags the image off the web browser to a prepared funeral program document.
It was at this early moment in Searching that I knew, in terms of screen POV as a cinematic tool, that it has already surpassed both 2014’s horror film Unfriended and its sequel Unfriended: Dark Web from a few months ago. As a matter of fact, it would not surprise me if this filmmaking novelty will never see a better outing than this thriller that, for the first time in Hollywood history, stars an Asian-American actor.
It has been two years since David Kim (John Cho) lost his wife Pamela (Sara Sohn) to lymphoma. David feels confident that he and his 16-year-old daughter Margot have moved on from grieving as Margot studies for finals and anticipates summer vacation and college applications. All of sudden, Margot goes missing. David goes to the authorities, who open an investigation and assign Det. Sgt. Rosemary Vick (a dedicated Debra Messing) to the case. As the hours and days pass, David’s brother Peter (Joseph Lee) suggests that David start examining his daughter’s laptop. This takes David through the gamut of modern communication tools, both everyday and cryptic, where perhaps the tiniest detail within text, images, or video could bring his daughter back.
When Unfriended pioneered the screen POV technique four years ago, many criticized the horror flick beyond just succumbing to obnoxious modern horror clichés such as irredeemable characters. The new criticism focused on how Unfriended gave audiences a stale movie experience riddled with numerous computer inaccuracies and leaps of logic. The improved setup for the sequel Unfriended: Dark Web from a few months ago did little to make the screen POV gimmick more involving.
Searching, by tackling a more traditional thriller plot, reveals that the prior two horror movies unwisely constrained themselves to a real-time progression. Writer-director Aneesh Chaganty, in collaboration with fellow writer Sev Ohanian and d.p. Juan Sebastian Baron, set out to render the story’s screens less as a creative box and more as a different type of camera. Sure, certain revelations can come off as convenient and some text responses from off-screen characters come much sooner than most human hands can type. Nevertheless, the aforementioned craftsmen, along with editors Nick Johnson and Will Merrick and score composer Torin Borrowdale, generate a compelling and even methodical clarity to the proceedings. One way they do so is through screen zooms akin to customary camera pushes and cuts, giving more attention to the editing instead of just sitting back in a disaffected fashion like with the Unfriended movies. The filmmakers behind Searching transform loading signs, typing notifications, the movement of the pointing cursor, and the mere blinking of the text cursor in such ways that one can easily substitute the current frames with non-computer/phone screen close-ups of an anxious David Kim. They even generated tension from an overnight screensaver scene!
Searching’s biggest blessing comes in the performances of its cast. John Cho has come a long way from his days in the Harold & Kumar stoner comedies (for mature viewers only). He impressed me in last year’s quiet and soothing arthouse drama Columbus and now he carries Searching with vigorous conviction. Michelle La, despite not appearing for much of the thriller’s present-day bulk, gives an under-appreciated turn as the missing Margot Kim. Seen in flashback when her father stumbles onto her YouCast channel, Margot’s suppressed despondence after the death of her mother and at her subsequent lack of a social life and distance from her father reminded me of Mark Rylance in Ready Player One from several months back. Finally (and without saying much), Debra Messing’s turn as Det. Sgt. Rosemary Vick will likely serve as the predominant reason for revisiting Searching in the years to come.
In light of how the cinematic horror and thriller genres often use novel ways to make their entries stand out, many have compared screen POV to the found footage device popularized in 1999’s The Blair Witch Project and 2007’s Paranormal Activity. As essential and iconic as those two films are, instead I hold Searching in the same high regard as the 2007 Spanish found footage horror film [•REC]. With regards to their respective narrative gimmicks, I honestly believe that both Searching and [•REC] will end up as the best cinematic experiences—or at least, the least problematic cinematic experiences—their gimmicks will ever produce.
Neither screen POV nor found footage are destined to produce all-time cinematic masterpieces. Yet even the worst novelties deserve one or two chances to prove that they can be worthwhile. For screen POV, Searching is one chance taken that deserves all of its success.
(Parental Note: Searching has been rated PG-13 by the MPAA “for thematic content, some drug and sexual references, and for language”. It has also been rated 15 by the BBFC for “infrequent strong language, moderate violence,” and “drug references”, and rated A-III (Adults) by the Catholic News Service for containing “mature themes, including suspicions of incest, images of and references to drug use, a mild oath, at least one rough and a few crude terms, and a single crass expression.”)
Renard N. Bansale once aspired to become an astronaut, before he found his passion in film discussion, criticism, conducting script-reading sessions of feature film screenplays, and annual Oscar tracking. Hailing from Seattle, WA, Renard graduated from JPCatholic in 2016 with a B.S. in Communications Media (Emphasis in Screenwriting) and is currently pursuing his M.A. in Theology online at the Augustine Institute.
For more movie reviews by Renard, click here.