Searching is not an audacious work simply for the merit of running heedlessly into a cinematic stunt, guns blazing (as in, this film’s events take place on various device screens, a la Unfriended). Searching is audacious because it works. The so-called stunt folds itself into the story it’s telling as, God help me, a cinematic device that enhances the motivations of its characters, and the unfolding of its central mystery. Even when the idea spreads itself to the brink of collapse, it holds true to its form and finds new ways to explore its telling as a part of its conceit. You can’t divorce the method from the narrative without taking a part of its soul away, and as a result, Searching is one of 2018’s mainstream film surprises.
It’s actually a slight shock to think that Sony Pictures has released one of the premiere films this year seeking to expand a cinema form; and, that such a creative expansion is woven neatly within a lost child mystery-thriller. True to genre: we have a struggling man, David (John Cho, doing a commendable job with FaceTime as an acting partner) working out pain in his recent past – his wife’s death – thereby making parenting a 16-year-old girl, Margot (Michelle La) a heavier burden than usual. Soon after the film opens, with a delightful montage starting with Windows’ “Bliss” and traveling through years of historical YouTube updates and an introduction to FaceTime, Margot goes Missing, and the film follows David going full technological Liam Neeson trying to find her. It’s a simple enough, well-worn story, and it stretches itself arguably too thin in its third act, but the genre lends itself very well to a mystery unraveling in a tech-centric world.
As the film progresses and the use of screens, software, media and metadata folds itself into the story itself, one slowly begins to realize that our daily media saturation has desensitized us to the high pedestal these media play in our experience and internal communication with the world. Or, we are somewhat blind to the part our technology plays in our daily story: the pregnant pause of being ‘left on read’, the breathtaking anticipation of the ‘typing awareness indicator’, or how much is left unsaid by a draft of a tweet unsent. What degree of our development as a person can be alluded to via our browser history, our app engagement, or who we follow on YouTube? Searching is on the same spiritual path as Big Data algorithms: seeking to uncover more about the story of ourselves than we may actually know about ourselves, and predict the climax based on these patterns of behavior. Our use of these tools to communicate our everyday thoughts and beliefs, as the behavior of David and Margot throughout the film implies, is then quantified by the use of these tools. As the mystery of Searching unravels for its characters, the answer finally does appear, much like the result of an equation. We may not accept it, but the math is sound.
First-time director Aneesh Chaganty does an admirable job smashing as many relevant and irrelevant details into the film as possible. There is a slight joy to be had seeing how browser windows interact with one another in the frame, or noticing the characters’ past Google searches autocomplete, or even messages from colleagues and family untouched in the background – sidebars for another day, but all somehow relevant to Searching’s central mystery. It is perversely obvious that the film’s numerous FaceTime chats act as traditional close-ups and crosscutting, with the 180-rule in synchronicity with the front-facing cameras at play. Websites and computer screen backgrounds perform as just that: backgrounds and setting. The cursor is itself a prop. The method of film language miming everyday experience is, of course, now assimilated into the communication tools we use.
So to its credit, the final payoff – that David “never really knew” his daughter, that their familial estrangement following a shared tragedy may have led to her death, is also fed by the use of the computer screen as our method of communication. The film’s late use of local news, YouTube comments and posts, and online social media harassment is a chilling (and timely) reversal of the truth these tools provide and how red herrings are allowed to flourish by the apparent anonymity and loneliness of the film’s/screen’s four walls. Late in the film, we (through David) discover Margot’s hobby of live-streaming her life; the screen as her confessional, and strangers her confessors. It’s a device that again makes sense, not only highlighting how little the father was connecting to his daughter, but how fractured we as a society may be when finding connections to others, and with ourselves, through these mediums. Searching is less about the hunt for a missing girl but more about the individual pursuit for meaning by way of real interaction. The final image hints that despite our reliance on these technologies, the technology itself is not the end-all to our story. The gimmick is no longer a gimmick.