'Searching' has an innovative approach to storytelling—the entire film takes place on computer screens.

'Searching' has an innovative approach to storytelling—the entire film takes place on computer screens.
August 30, 2018

A clever framing device surrounds a more conventional film


It's neither the first nor the best movie about living (and dying) online, but San Jose-raised filmmaker Aneesh Chaganty's thriller Searching is an absorbing picture constructed of Windows and iPhone shots, of Google searches and live-streaming of TV news websites.

We see the Santa Clara Valley girl Margot grow up via home movie footage—she's played by several actresses, finally in adolescence by Michelle La. When she's 15 going on 16, she vanishes one weekend, even as her clueless dad is hounding her with snapshots of the trash she forgot to take out before she left. Her widowed Korean-American father David Kim (a harsh, dogged John Cho) is a high tech executive who may have been too distracted to notice her pain. Now he has to hunt for leads on the laptop she left behind.

It's more than just the dropped references to the tech companies that make this seem local; perhaps it was all inspired by the Sierra LaMar murder case. Chaganty scans "San Jose Fins" hockey jerseys and the "Silicon Valley Police Department" hunting for Margot, as well a finale set at fictional Barbosa Lake up in the mountains west of Gilroy. An unscrubbed reference to Evergreen hides in the margins, but the gone girl is a student at "Evercreek High School," home of the Evercreek Catfish football team. Catfish, a clue! True, most the fish here are red herrings.

Chaganty masters the technical challenge of making every shot an electronic transmission without making what we see visually boring. When we think we've gone live, as when a news bulletin comes in, we pull back to reveal yet another computer screen. Searching's not a cheat, either; among these glanced-at suspects, the person responsible for Margot's disappearance is there for us to see.

Searching's view of the Internet includes the swine who come out when they smell disaster. Social media posters weigh in on the idea that David was responsible: hashtags #parentfail and #daddidit. While it's mostly humorless, there are a bit of bleak laughs, Heathers-style. An Evercreek student who first claimed not to know Margot is later seen sobbing on Skype, wailing "She was my best friend," and accepting all the condolences from people touched for a nanosecond or two on Facebook. Beyond the thoughts-and-prayers emotional bilge is the viciousness of kids hiding behind pseudonyms. Since actress La excels at emoting loneliness, the cutting remarks do sting—as when some anonymous person Margot is pouring her heart to online responds "BOOBIES PLZ."

Chaganty won the NEXT award at Sundance; he'd previously directed "Seeds" on Google Glass, which went viral on YouTube; thus he was invited to become one of the "Google Five" making commercials in New York. Searching may be the next step beyond Google-goggles POV, perhaps indicating what post-cinema will look like, a hypertextual storm of popups and open windows.

You can't expect a young filmmaker to be as pessimistic as Brian De Palma, who collaged footage from CCTV, smart phones and web pages into Redacted (2007). But Searching's unrealistically positive ending matches some unfortunate acting choices by Debra Messing as Rosemary Vick, the detective on the case. While we later learn a reason for her emotions, the throbbing broken-hearted approach to playing a cop at a press conference sticks out like a sore thumb.

Worse, Searching's beginning and end reflect Chaganty's experience as a maker of commercials. It's a genuine skill to conjure up instant emotions, as a commercial must, in the service of getting clients sniffling in 60 seconds flat. This rabbit punch straight in the feels contradicts the critical side of Searching. It touches on the sinister side of the internet and then retreats into warmth. You leave a little bewildered, marvelling that we entered this electronic panopticon of our own free will, and how it's easier to get in than to get out.

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