‘Searching’ review: Perfectly-executed digital thriller

You’ll walk away of Aneesh Chaganty’s ‘Searching’ with a brand new awareness on social media exposure.

Searching hooks you right away with its 5-minute opening sequence. Shot from the point of view of a computer screen, the film builds a backstory of the Kim family through video clips, calendar events, photos, email messages, etc. It’s a clever hack – just like that, you already have an emotional attachment to the characters. You’re thinking, how long will the film commit to this style of execution? Well, it goes all the way. This may not be a first in cinematic history – Unfriended took the initiative back in 2014, but Searching definitely used this style as an effective storytelling device and not just a gimmick.

The owner of the laptop in display is David Kim (John Cho), a widowed father who seems to have an unspoken rift with his teenage daughter Margot (Michelle La). Things take a dark turn when one day, she doesn’t come home after a group study session. Upon realizing this, David enlists the help of the police and private detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing) and together, they seek clues in her various social media accounts to find her. By using applications and websites that almost everyone is aware of, the film draws you in with a sense of familiarity. The message immediately clicks: We leave digital crumbs everywhere and our online activities can be traced by anyone. None of our secrets are safe.

Michelle La as the missing teen girl in ‘Searching.’ Photo via Screen Gems.

As the narrative expands and the case becomes more high profile, director Aneesh Chaganty works beyond the confines of a computer screen and uses other medium such as TV broadcasts and camera footages. Editors Nick Johnson and Will Merrick showcases phenomenal work in stringing them all seamlessly.

The resulting outcome feels very real and remarkably engaging. I was half-expecting the words, “based on a true story” to flash after the credits. Chaganty concocts every parent’s nightmare in such a tightly-paced screenplay. Was she abducted? Did she ran away? Is she still alive? The paranoia is built in such a procedural manner – the film trains the viewers to remember certain pieces of information like usernames and maps to lead you on. But at the same time, it’s always two steps ahead of you as leads turn out to be red herrings and misdirections.

As #FindMargot becomes a trending topic in social media, the film draws humor from hypocrite netizens jumping in to join the cause. Anonymous keyboard warriors challenge David’s innocence and a meme of him tagged as the “Father of the Year” even surfaces.

John Cho does everything to find her daughter in ‘Searching.’ Photo via Screen Gems.

Of course, this mystery-thriller won’t work if we didn’t care about the characters. Cho holds the film’s weight with such a steady composure that gradually breaks into a state of hopelessness. As his character’s search for her missing daughter deepens, another horror strikes upon him: she didn’t knew who her daughter was. It resonates to most audience, people put on different facades online versus real life. The film has also interesting redefinitions on the value of friendships – how it can be superficial in the advent of digital age. Count your Facebook contacts and I bet most of them are just acquaintances, some of them you never even have personally met.

Above all, Searching presents the psychology and behavior of a person through digital gadgets. Computers and phones have been embedded to our culture and upbringing more than we realize. Someone’s personality and interest can be understood through keystrokes and browser activity. At one point, the film cleverly shows us David’s state of mind through the texts he types and then deletes.

Searching tells a conventional mystery-thriller in a well-sustained, unorthodox fashion. By sticking to the digital realm, Chaganty makes use of the shortcuts available to him to explore backstories and encourage audience participation. This film encapsulates the face of humanity in this digital age and more importantly, it also serves as a cautionary tale that everyone, especially parents can benefit from. This comes as highly recommended.

5 out of 5 stars

Directed by Aneesh Chaganty, written by Aneesh Chaganty and Sev Ohanian
Cast: John Cho, Debra Messing, Joseph Lee, Michele La
Run time: 102 minutes

One response to “‘Searching’ review: Perfectly-executed digital thriller”

  1. I really enjoyed this film as I think it helps to show how our lives have changed throughout the internet and smart phones. I loved the walk down memory lane with Windows and then across to Mac!


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