Review: ‘Searching’ Raises Questions of Digital-Era Trust

Searching | Aneesh Chaganty | August 24, 2018

Aneesh Chaganty makes quite the first impression with his full-length directorial debut Searching, which he co-wrote along with Sev Ohanian. While the story about a missing teenage girl and her desperate dad’s hunt to find her isn’t a new one, it’s the way that Chaganty tells it that makes Searching such a refreshing and thrilling ride.

These days, it’s just David Kim (John Cho) and his daughter Margot (Michelle La). They tragically lost their mother Pamela (Sara Sohn) to cancer and although they have one another, there’s a missing piece in their life that they’re trying to mend. Some may call Chaganty’s storytelling method gimmicky, and if it is, it’s a gimmick that works. It’s as if we are using the computer in front of our own eyes, seeing it from a perspective that is all too familiar for anyone alive in 2018 – or, in a similar fashion, Unfriended and its sequel Unfriended: Dark Web.

We learn about their family history through David setting up the family computer and setting up accounts for both Sara and young Margot. We see their first family selfie, and from there on out, Chaganty uses this device to give us a photo album-like run through of their family journey, from the very first days at school and to Pamela’s untimely cancer diagnosis, remission, and return. On paper, it may not sound like the most effective way to introduce or tell a story, but let me tell you, it works in a surprisingly touching and emotional fashion in what is one of the most effective opening sequences of the entire year.

Searching still - John Cho in a Facetime window

We continue to see their world from their devices, mainly from cinematographer Juan Sebastian Baron’s locked in approach on David’s computer. We see him connect with Margot through iMessage and Facetime and see his concern via Facetime when she doesn’t come home or answer his calls and texts. This framing of his slow descent into understandable panic is unwavering due to the up-close-and-personal nature of the devices. You can’t escape being thrown into the world of fear that David is going through as you have nowhere else to look as he desperately rummages through her Facebook and social media accounts. Even the banality of accessing her accounts and resetting her e-mail password in order to reset her other passwords are done in a way that feels almost painfully too real.

He remains steadfast in the hunt for his daughter, doing everything that everyone would do if we were in his position, slowly trying to track down her last known whereabouts and calling her friends and classmates to help piece together this perplexing puzzle. Only it’s through this search that he discovers that he may not have known his daughter as well as he thought, taking the mystery to a whole different level entirely.

Searching still - Debra Messing and John Cho at a crime scene

While the first two-thirds of the film is more tightly delivered because of Chaganty’s commitment to his storytelling device, it’s when he slowly breaks away from the solitary screen, sites, and applications to show how the mystery unfolds that Searching loses something. There are plenty of twists and turns and it keeps you gripped to the screen all the way through, but this is another case of sometimes the question of what happened is more effective than finding out the answer and having it all explained for us. Even so, I found myself constantly in fear of every new discovery that David made, constantly at the edge of my seat.

It’s hard to see this working without an actor such as Cho leading the charge. Essentially, Cho gives a one-man performance, constantly in front of the screen, performing alone with just the framework of him engaging in a Facetime conversation or navigating the murky waters of the internet as the search for his daughter unfolds in near-real-time. Cho and Chaganty capture an authentic portrayal of our relationships with computers, connecting us but also at the same time putting a real-life distance between us. Cho is absolutely terrific, capturing the panic of a father with precision and care. Without a leading man who could ground this story in such a way, Searching would’ve stumbled hard and fast. There are also solid interactions with Michelle La’s Margot, Joseph Lee’s Peter (David’s brother), and Debra Messing’s Detective Vick, who is assigned to Margot’s missing person case.

Searching still - Joseph Lee and John Cho searching

While it has some natural shortcomings due to its storytelling device and questionable plot points, it never becomes tiresome and actually allows Chaganty and his team to strip down its story to its essentials and tell an effective ride that features a great performance, plenty of twists and turns, and a small-time story that has more ambition than most of the big summer tentpoles. Ultimately, Searching is a refreshing take on a familiar genre that ultimately pays off.

Rating: 8.0/10