“Searching” is the latest thriller that takes place entirely on computer screens and smartphones. The film revolves around a San Jose-based father named David Kim (John Cho) who is concerned when his sixteen-year-old daughter Margot (newcomer Michelle La) is missing. With the help of a decorated detective named Rosemary Vicks (Debra Messing), David uses the internet to learn the possible whereabouts of Margot and, while on her laptop, unearths revelations about the daughter he thought he knew. I am not usually into these gimmicky movies, but the trailer and positive word-of-mouth for “Searching” made me want to check it out. Fortunately, this film was a pleasant surprise and possibly one of the year’s best.
Obviously, I cannot further discuss a movie that takes place within screens without talking about the technical aspects on display and, thankfully, they are successful overall. For those who don’t know, “Searching” is the feature debut of writer/director Aneesh Chaganty, and the fact that its visual presentation is this top-notch blows my mind. From the way it focuses on certain segments of the screen to the way David types specific messages, Chaganty and company know how to captivate audiences with this unique presentation while also using it to tell a compelling narrative. For example, the film shows an entrancing flurry screensaver on David’s MacBook laptop on top of a soothing musical score to imply that that he is sleeping. This and other clever Easter eggs demonstrate how much fun the filmmakers are having as they play with this medium.
The performances in “Searching” are also great for the most part, but no one in this cast deserves more credit than John Cho. Whenever he is on-screen, Cho is extremely believable as a concerned father who re-examines the relationship with his daughter while trying to find her. There is one scene where David looks absolutely exhausted because he is so committed to learning Margot’s whereabouts. Likewise, Debra Messing is noteworthy as the detective assigned to Margot’s case who feels emotionally invested in it for personal reasons. Both actors also serve as co-producers on the film which is one of the reasons why they are giving their all with these performances. Additionally, characters who are only in the film for one or two scenes still feel so authentic. For instance, David interviews several of Margot’s classmates who all tell him that they were not very close with her, but when the case begins to gain traction, David finds videos from these classmates saying how much they miss Margot. I commend Chaganty for pointing out how people will make nationwide tragedies about themselves for their own personal gain. There is one character that I didn’t like, but that could possibly change on repeat viewings.
Another highlight of “Searching” is in its execution. Movies about parents looking for their missing children are not new, but what separates this one from the rest is the rocky relationship that develops between David and Margot as the film progresses. Moreover, Chaganty and co-writer Sev Ohanian take this familiar premise in a direction that a conventional narrative could not. There are already several movies about a parent looking for his missing daughter but what separates “Searching” from the mold is how David learns more about Margot as he continues to look for her. Considering that the film takes on screens, seeing that Chaganty and Ohanian know how computers work and understand my generation is refreshing to say the least. Similarly, a movie of this medium could become boring after a while, but, at 102-minute runtime, I never felt that way at all. What surprised me the most is how well the screenwriters were able to implement humor in an otherwise serious film.
“Searching” proves that different mediums can work for great movies. A terrific visual presentation, fantastic lead performances and clever writing are worth the price of admission alone. I took a bus into Boston and walked 30 minutes to the theater in order to see this film and it was totally worth it.