Film Review: Searching

Father searches for his missing teenage daughter in a story told entirely through video screens.
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Picked up by Sony after a warmly received Sundance screening, Searching unfolds almost entirely through computer screens. Like producer Timur Bekmambetov's Unfriended franchise, it's a gimmick that works well enough if you don't care about actual movies.

First-time director Aneesh Chaganty and his producing partner Sev Ohanian teamed for the screenplay, which assembles a persuasive computer-centric world that mimics the way many people operate today. Texts, FaceTime, Instagram, Facebook, Tumblr, notifications, reminders, calendars, Google Maps, GPS apps, Venmo, Reddit, webcams, and ubiquitous browsers are how the Kims work, learn, communicate, and in an icky way die.

An opening montage lifted from Up introduces the Kim family through photos and videos. Father David (John Cho) has an unspecified upscale job, his wife Pam (Sara Sohn) has terminal cancer, and his daughter Margot (Michelle La), once a promising pianist, has drifted into a deepening depression that David doesn't recognize or acknowledge.

We watch the movie mostly through David's home laptop, the frame crowded with as many as a half-dozen screens. A video chat may prompt a Google search that opens websites with pictures, music, news clips and whatever else the filmmakers need to reveal clues and twists.

In fact, Searching is so smart about how we interact with computers that it's surprising how lame it is about moviemaking basics like characters and plot. Margot is lonely, David clueless, his brother Peter (Joseph Lee) a druggie sports nut—broad strokes for empty ciphers, no matter how much energy Cho brings to the project.

Early in the story, Margot goes missing after pretending to attend an all-night study session with classmates. Most of what follows is David frantically trying to find out what happened through his computer, with the help of hero cop Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing). Wouldn't you know it? It turns out David didn't know much about Margot at all.

Margot's "mystery" entails ludicrous coincidences, miraculous twists, and police work real cops would laugh at. Take away Searching's computer gimmick, and the plot wouldn't measure up to an average episode of "The Mysteries of Laura," Messing's cancelled cop series.

But, hey, what about all those screens? Just like in real life, they're distractions, diversions, ways to waste time, to reduce attention spans. They also limit the filmmakers to techniques used in early silent movies. Action takes place at one height, on one plane, stripped of the language cinema has developed over the past 120 years. There are no real close-ups or inserts or tracking shots or reverse angles or action montages unless they appear in fake TV-news coverage. In which case, why aren't we just watching TV?

But then there's all that computer stuff. It's amusing that David doesn't know anything about trends and likes, it's funny to see those old, obsolete operating systems dredged up for the big screen, and it's possible someone in the audience still needs to be alerted that you can't always trust what you see on a computer. Is that worth the degraded visuals, the rudimentary storytelling and the self-congratulatory attitude Searching offers?