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Searching

Posted September 2, 2018 By Curiosity Inc.

This should not have worked.

Here we have a thriller set entirely within the four corners of a computer screen, as the story unfolds through programs and windows popping up. This is not a new gimmick. No less than two movies — Open Windows and Unfriended — tried it back in 2014. Both of them came and went with so little fanfare that I’ll bet you didn’t even know or care that Unfriended is getting a sequel later this year. And there’s little doubt that it will fail just as hard.

Yet Searching has a secret weapon in writer/director Aneesh Chaganty. Before making his feature debut here, Chaganty cut his teeth filming spots for Google. So here we have a filmmaker with legit knowledge of modern online technology and how to make it look good for the camera. With this skill set and background, it’s easy to see how he could be the one to finally crack the code and make this gimmick work.

And the first step was to have a legitimately compelling story. Who knew, right?

The plot is centered around David Kim and his daughter Margot, respectively played by John Cho and Michelle La. The two have sadly grown more distant since David’s wife (Pamela, played by Sara Sohn), died of cancer a few years prior. The two dearly love each other, but it’s clear that they’re both still in mourning, and there’s a significant disconnect because neither one of them is willing or able to talk about the loved one who’s no longer there.

(Side note: It’s worth mentioning that the central players of our movie are Asian-American, and the movie doesn’t make a huge deal out of it. Their race is certainly a factor, to be sure, but in subtle and tasteful ways. Nicely done. Let’s hope this becomes a trend.)

Still, things are stable enough until Margot disappears. David reports Margot as a missing person, Detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing) is assigned to the case, the police investigate while David looks for clues in the personal life of his daughter, and things keep getting crazier from there.

Right off the bat, this movie succeeds in large part because the mystery plot itself isn’t really about technology at all. Furthermore, there’s nothing supernatural or larger-than-life about any of this. At its heart and core, this is a movie about a father trying to reconnect with his daughter, and the stakes feel deeply personal as a direct result. What’s more, while we’ve seen so many technology-centric movies about parents and children (how parents just don’t understand modern technology, how parents need to protect their children from the dangers of an online world, etc.), this movie takes a beautifully novel and subtle approach toward developing this relationship into a recurring theme, doing so in a way that really has nothing to do with our increasingly online world. It’s really more about the greater need for communication, both online and offline.

In point of fact, the whole story could have been shot as a conventional film and it probably would have been just as powerful. But presenting it through the lens of modern technology raises so many fascinating points about how we process tragedy nowadays. Some kid goes missing or a young adult turns up dead, and suddenly everyone on the planet has something to say about it. Comment boards and video sites are flooded with well-intentioned thoughts and prayers, conspiracy theorists, slut-shamers, condolences, pleas for attention… so many millions of reactions comprising pretty much the entire spectrum of human emotions. I don’t even have to describe it all that well — every single one of us has seen this play out every single day in response to the latest national tragedy.

Furthermore, of course someone is going to go looking into Margot’s laptop for clues because that’s what she uses to get things done every day. That’s where she keeps her contact list, her call history, her banking information, all of it. This is Margot’s entire life, and we’re watching her father relive it. I can’t overstate how impossibly effective that is in creating an emotional investment in these two characters and their relationship.

Moreover,¬†Margot is young enough that she doesn’t have any history kept in photo albums or video tapes. There are now high schoolers… hell, there are now people of legal voting age whose entire lifespan is chronicled in digital searchable media. And the movie doesn’t treat that as any big deal. That’s just how it is now and we’ve learned to live with it.

Even if David isn’t entirely up-to-date on all the latest social media trends (And really, who is?), he knows what Facebook is. He knows what Google and Gmail are. Really, there are so many websites and services featured in this movie that it would come off as gross product placement, except that these are the tools we use every single day, and this is exactly how anyone would use them in this exact scenario. So it doesn’t really come off as obnoxious as much as authentic.

Also, it was really kind of neat to see older technology make appearances. Remember Windows XP? Remember what eBay looked like when it first launched? Isn’t it crazy that we can get so nostalgic over something less than a decade old?

Getting back to the earlier point, it helps this movie in a big way that David isn’t completely ignorant about online tech. Nobody has to hold his hand (or ours) and explain how to use a search engine. It’s simply taken for granted that he (and the audience) has come to learn how to use these tools fluently after so many years of everyday application. Even when he hacks into his daughter’s e-mail and social media — and yes, the movie is sure to pause at the violation of trust — he does it in ways that can be instantly understood by anyone in the audience. And yes, folks, it really is this easy to hack into anyone’s account, especially if the hacker is someone who knows you well enough. Set up two-factor identification wherever you can. I digress.

Another crucial component of the film is in exploring how the internet brings people together. Social media is wonderful for anyone who’s lonely or suffering, desperate for validation from friends or total strangers. Of course, there’s an obvious downside in the possibility for cyberbullying or catfishing, and of course the film goes there. But through it all, the filmmakers keep a very clear emphasis on the humans behind the online interactions. These emotions and reactions never materialize out of thin air, and computers are never reduced to magic boxes.

With all of that said, the filmmakers do an awful lot of cheating in the process of making the central gimmick work. It’s really quite fascinating how the rules get bent out of shape without ever completely getting broken. For example, we get a fair bit of news TV coverage and CCTV footage, both of which could technically be seen on a computer screen. Which brings me to another point: The proceedings are not limited to only one computer. We cut between several different monitors on various different machines, and even a cell phone at one point. Oh, and that classic “found footage” cliche of characters holding a camera in front of them for no adequate reason? That’s definitely here.

But then we have my personal favorite cheat: The movie never confines itself to a static shot of the computer screen. Quite the contrary, the camera pans and zooms all over the screen, drawing attention to certain elements while keeping others hidden. In this way, the camerawork and the editing do a fantastic job of telling the story and keeping up the suspense. Seriously, the pacing in this movie is absolutely superb, and every reveal is impeccably timed.

What’s even better is in the smaller touches of how the user is interacting with the computer. The movement of the cursor, typing and correcting certain words — sometimes agonizing over which punctuation mark to use — all those long pauses before an action is taken or a word is typed, watching the messenger window with the notification that someone else is typing or hasn’t received the message yet… all of these communicate volumes about what the characters are thinking and feeling in the moment. It’s a completely new kind of emotional shorthand, developed over so many decades of our own use with computers. Seriously, think about how huge that is.

Another great cheat is in the score. From the very opening moments, composer Torin Borrowdale practically slaps the audience across the face with how brilliant this music is and how much it helps to tell the story. While the score is certainly not diegetic and has nothing to do with computers at all, that barely even matters when it does so much to help us emotionally connect with a computer screen and the people using it.

So are there any nitpicks? Yes, sadly. Your mileage may vary with regards to the mystery thriller plot — depending on how familiar you are with the genre, there’s a good chance that you may see what’s coming long before the characters do. For me personally, I had no problem spotting all the most relevant clues, but I was still pleasantly surprised at how they all fit together. Of course, it also helped that the film spent so much time on David and his inner turmoil that I had been lulled into forgetting that we were watching a mystery thriller and let my guard down.

Alas, all the most relevant clues are buried under a massive landfill of red herrings. I’ve really come to hate red herrings. Anyone with half a brain would know that we’re not getting the full solution before the climax, and so a suspect made blatantly obvious at the halfway or three-quarters mark couldn’t possibly be the culprit. So why waste our time convoluting the story any more than necessary?

That said, there are two massive red herrings that I don’t really mind so much. One, because it provides a lot of great character drama for David and sheds some very crucial light on his relationship with Margot. The other because it illustrates how vapid douchebags tend to say nasty shit online that they don’t really mean, ignorant or perhaps apathetic about the very real harm those words can cause. It comes back to what may be the greatest strength of this movie: We’re never allowed to forget that there is a real human being on each and every side of any online communication.

Searching is a game-changer. There’s no doubt about that. In terms of depicting modern technology and online activity, and also in terms of depicting POC (that’s Protagonists Of Color), this movie is a colossal leap forward that all present and future filmmakers would do well to learn from. I have no idea how well that will age, but it is most certainly a comprehensive and authentic snapshot of where mainstream computer culture is at this exact moment in time. And even if the depiction of computers is terribly dated in a few years’ time, the compelling and superbly paced mystery plot with its powerful beating heart will surely continue to entertain.

Don’t wait to see this one on home media, folks — this was absolutely a movie made to be experienced with others.¬†Go see it now.