IN CINEMAS NOW
RUNNING TIME: 102 mins
REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera, Official HCF Critic
When David’s wife Pamela dies of cancer, the relationship between him and his daughter Margot grows distant, which is why it’s actually more than a full twenty four hours before David realises that his daughter has gone missing. A local investigation is opened and Detective Rosemary Vick is assigned to the case. Thirty seven hours later and without a single lead, David decides to search the one place no one has looked yet, where all secrets are kept today: his daughter’s laptop.…
If someone had told me a few years that they were making films that take place entirely on computer screens, I’d have probably replied that it was just a recipe for boredom. Indeed Unfriended failed to involve me much at all [I have yet to see Open Window], but its sequel managed to better it in every way and now we have Searching, which is a mystery suspense thriller rather than a horror film- though of course the premise is an especially horrifying one for parents while today’s teenagers probably find the idea of a father trawling through their social media about as close to pure horror as it gets. All the action in Searching unfolds on several computer or laptop screens, mostly that of David our main protagonist, but sometimes on the screens of those he’s talking to or even on the screens of people we don’t actually see because some of it consists of video clips which sometimes have David featuring in them. I guess you could say that this is cheating just a little bit, but it also means that the film’s music score, a very good electronic effort by Torin Borrowdale, doesn’t seem as out of place and/or intrusive as it does on some more conventionally ‘found footage’ flicks. In fact it helps a great deal in moving things forward during some sections that could be a bit tedious otherwise.
In a very well conceived opening that for some may recall the beginning of Up, the film opens with clips from videos as someone who is obviously either David or his wife Pamela creates a new user on an computer for his newborn Margot and we get glimpses of a number of childhood milestones increasingly interspersed with Margot struggling with cancer. I have no shame in admitting that, after Up, I now have a second film which managed to bring me to tears in the first few minutes, something that was initially really baffling to me considering that what we see is just stuff on a computer screen. But then Searching is surprisingly full of humanity and emotion throughout [in fact you could almost say that these elements are stronger than the thriller aspect] which is just one thing that shows what an achievement this movie is by director Aneesh Chaganty and his co-screenwriter Sev Ohanian. And it’s also great that it features Asian Americans without making any deal whatsoever out of it. The success of this film and Crazy Rich Asians [even though that’s something I personally have little interest in seeing] which both feature one of Hollywood’s least represented ethnic groups can only be a good thing.
Margot leaves to be with her study group for the night and doesn’t respond to her father’s call, something that’s normal for the two since Pamela’s death. While David sleeps, Margot calls him three times. David discovers the missed calls the next morning but brushes off his concerns, initially assuming that she is attending one of her piano lessons until her piano instructor says she canceled her lessons six months ago. David then discovers that she put the money he gave her for the lessons into a bank account for herself, and transferred $2,500 to a now deleted Venmo account. He contacts his brother Peter about Margot’s whereabouts and Peter assumes she may simply be messing around, while the mother of one of Margot’s friends says that she went camping – but actually Margot never showed up. David finally reports her as missing and Detective Rosemary Vick is happy with him doing some investigating himself, both of them living in a time where police investigations are often more focused on going through a kidnap or murder victim’s internet history in search of clues rather than more traditional methods. He contacts her Facebook friends and is surprised to discover that she’d become a loner since her mother’s death. Clearly David didn’t know his daughter much at all and hadn’t been paying much attention to her. It seems that Margot had taken up photography as a hobby, created a fake I.D., and managed to make some friends on a YouCast account. We’re reminded of the strange thing that’s online socialising where somebody with no friends can soon have many, and asked to wonder if her dad’s attitude to her, seemingly very loving on the surface from what we see but in truth ignoring her needs, may have caused her to run away.
It’s maybe rather convenient that David is such a computer whizz. And To be honest, it’s the idea of him feeling some guilt that keeps things going around the mid-section, which does become overly repetitious and visually not very interesting as David finds out more and more about his daughter while sometimes having video chats with Rosemary. Well – that and as I said earlier the score, plus John Cho’s quite superb performance which often requires him to show emotion while saying nothing, just typing and seeing. But then the film goes outdoors and one can almost breath the fresh air even though even this is being viewed on a screen. They’ve found Margot’s car but – well, let’s just say that foul play is involved which won’t come as a surprise to anyone, though I did wonder for a bit if the film would have been just as good if nothing bad was happening and Margot had just ran away. There’s much use of news reports to tells us the story in the second half which results in things being slightly disjointed, and you may even laugh when traveling is represented by sat nav, but the pace picks up tremendously and we get the rug pulled out from under our feet several times. At one point the film appears to be concluding, but then it throws up another surprise and I doubt many will guess it, though there are some minor plot holes if you’re like me and are inclined to be picky. And I wouldn’t have ended it the way it does either.
But against the odds Searching is surprisingly gripping at times, perhaps most notably when David has round a suspect, something observed by a hidden camera, and we’re on edge waiting for him to reveal what he knows – or should that be what he thinks he knows? Of course there’s no ‘action’ of the typical kind apart from a brief glimpse of David assaulting someone who, even if he’s not responsible for kidnapping or killing his daughter, certainly seems to be an unpleasant sort going by his Facebook comments. It’s also the only scene which goes into ‘shakycam’, the camera usually tending to just slowly pan towards or away from certain areas on screens. It’s just enough to stop things becoming static. Showing what David sees but also showing him from the point of view of others was also a wise decision, while the total lack of fake websites adds to the feeling of authenticity, though perhaps the mouse cursor moves a bit too smoothly. Of course the commentary on how lives are led online is obvious, though Chaganty and Ohanian neither celebrate nor condemn this apart from sometimes highlighting the fakeness of social media. We see some extreme online reactions to some of the events of the film. You get the ‘Best Dad’ memes, the needlessly speculative neighbours who just want their 15 minutes of fame on TV, the trending ‘dad did it’ hashtag, the endless ‘thoughts and prayers’, and the fellow students who bring on the tears and suddenly claim to have been best friends with Margot for the sake of ‘views’ and ‘likes’. If it wasn’t exactly how so many people – in particular all those fearless keyboard warriors – are it would be satire – and it does provide a few chuckles.
Debra Messing, looking barely recogisable, is typically fine as Rosemary, and only Michelle La lets the side down as Margot. Her relative inexperience as a performer shows in her awkwardness on screen, though the writing is so good that we constantly care about the character and I was positively on tender hooks during one scene where she’s on screen but we just don’t know if she’s dead or alive. Searching is about as of the ‘now’ as you get and is a far better piece of entertainment than it probably ought to be. It never lets its gimmick overshadow the fact that it’s really about a father trying to understand his daughter and dealing with grief. All this is probably just as well, because like it or loath it, now that Searching seems to have opened up the possibilities, there will probably be more films employing this method of telling a story because of the way so many of us now lead our lives on a fashion undreamed of fourty, thirty or even twenty years ago.