Cast: John Cho, Debra Messing, Joseph Lee, Michelle La, Sara Sohn, Roy Abrahmsohn, Gabriel D. Angell
Director: Aneesh Chaganty
Running time: 1 hour 42 minutes
by Jericho Cerrona
With the advent of social media, technology has given us a way to create mini narratives; fashioning our lives as a series of images, video files, and text-based “updates”. Therefore, it didn’t take long for filmmakers to utilize this trend for cinematic purposes, seeing as how narrative information can easily be dispensed through computer-based montages. Aneesh Chaganty's Searching begins with this in mind; stringing together a variety of pictures, videos, and other media depicting the childhood years of Margot (Michelle La). This provides a decade-long prologue following Margot as she grows up while dealing with her mother, Pam (Sara Sohn), who is diagnosed with and eventually passes away from cancer. Even though this introduction is effective in distilling thematic information, it’s also presented like a cloying Hallmark commercial; complete with twinkly piano music accompanying mawkish home video footage. Whether one sheds a tear or experiences a gag reflex is subjective, but it’s clear Searching wants audiences to feel something.
Or does it? Aesthetically, Chaganty’s film is similar to other tech-based experiments like the Unfriended series where the entire story takes place on a computer screen, but rather than lean into the horrors of what may be lurking on the Internet, Searching draws its dramatic thrust from B-grade thrillers and old fashioned murder mysteries. Margot's father, David (John Cho), is set up as a seemingly caring dad who misjudges his relationship with his daughter. Once she goes missing after attending a study group, David launches into full on sleuth mode like an iChat Sherlock Holmes; attempting to track down his daughter through Gmail, Facebook, Tumblr, and other chat sites.
Initially, Searching seems to be commenting on how technology allows us to hide our pain behind digital avatars, but honestly, the film is mostly a rousing digital age procedural. As David teams up with tough-minded Detective Vick (Debra Messing), the film’s first two acts serve as a virtual investigation where a distraught father follows a series of cyberspace clues. Was Margot some kind of criminal? Was she kidnapped and her identity stolen? Can David trust his brother Peter (Joseph Lee) who seems to be harboring a dark secret? Why is Messing’s detective so psychologically fragile? How many typing mistakes, spelling errors, and deleted messages will David be guilty of?
Searching takes some wild turns in the third act as red herrings pile up like glitchy load screens. Less time is dedicated to David’s inner turmoil and more to twisting genre tropes and gotcha! surprises. While this shift into mystery/thriller cheesiness may strike some viewers as disingenuous, it’s actually the most gleefully entertaining aspect of the film. If the previous two acts had operated more in this heightened thriller mode, then the deliriously absurd climax may have landed more forcefully.
As it stands, all of the late rug-pulling maintains a tonal lunacy sadly missing from the film’s more sentimental setup. All the while, John Cho registers looks of concern, shock, fear, disgust, and panic as he furiously toggles menus and screens within screens. It’s the kind of thing which used to be judged as “phone acting”, a notoriously difficult task of reacting and responding to nothing and no one. But perhaps Cho wasn’t told what type of film he was starring in; a film which requires melodramatic theatrics, not authentic father-daughter bonding, in order to sell its delightfully cornball finish.