Film Review: Searching (USA, 2018) surprises with inventive storytelling, timely themes and strong performances

It is quite amusing to think that we have many films released over the years, regardless of genre, that span across many imaginative worlds, planets, fantasy settings and so on. With the vast amount of superhero films and blockbusters, it’s hard not to see why. But, the world that has not been mined more than enough, despite the great films that have been made from it, is the World Wide Web. Such ingenuity can be extracted from the setting that we can have great films like The Social Network, Catfish, Unfriended, and The Den. It is mind-boggling to think that this isn’t done more often.

But what’s even more mind-boggling is that new upcoming thriller, Searching, is the first Hollywood mainstream thriller to feature an Asian-American in the lead role. To me, it’s puzzling enough that we rarely have focus on Asian-American families on-screen, but the fact above… wow! The film, a new technological cyber-thriller from feature debut director Aneesh Chaganty, has been gathering some critical buzz since its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. With a host of established actors (John Cho, Debra Messing) and rising talent (Michelle La), the question is, will Searching hit that wow factor?

After David Kim’s (John Cho) 16-year-old daughter, Margot (Michelle La) goes missing, a local investigation is opened, with Detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing) assigned to the case. But, 37 hours later and without a single lead, David decides to search the one place no one has looked yet. The place where all secrets are kept these days: his daughter’s laptop. With her social life on the internet becomes an illuminating rabbit hole that goes deeper and deeper, and with a limited amount of time, David must trace his daughter’s digital footprints before she disappears forever.

One of the major positives that makes Searching work is how writer and director Aneesh Chaganty, and co-writer Sev Ohanian really attacked the material with a high degree of verisimilitude; using the exact sounds and layouts of the programs like Skype, YouTube and Mac programs. It really added to the gripping storytelling. Even the video freezes and sound lags are used to great effect, adding to the atmosphere and immersion.

Also adding to the storytelling is the depiction of the characters’ use of technology. For example, a character would start typing a message and then erase it and change it completely. It’s a clever bit of storytelling, and adds much-needed character development, whilst also a realistic look at people’s use of technology. There is even some very ingenious foreshadowing for eagle-eyed viewers, which all adds to the film’s replay value. Another example, is how these characters think they are invincible behind a shield of anonymity, thinking they can get away with their bad deeds. But when their secrets are revealed, we know more about the characters. That progression between anonymity and clarity is scary, since again, it stems from reality. The film even drives the idea of internet addiction into the tale, not only selling the premise quite well, but also alleviating supposed plot holes.

Next comes the great performances. John Cho, who has always been an understated actor in indie dramas like Columbus, Gemini and even the Harold and Kumar films. But in the case of Searching, he has his first leading role in a Hollywood thriller, and he does a fantastic job. Cho makes the progression from grieving single father, to obsessive investigator, to a man driven with simmering rage, look smooth and effortless. In one particular scene, his character goes from being aggressive to conflicted and eventually collapsing to the fetal position, and it is a compelling gut-punch to witness. Cho really nails it.

The other two leads, Debra Messing and newcomer Michelle La also give great performances that are nuanced and convincing, and reveal the hidden depths of their characters. La, in particular, has the harder task, mainly due to her limited screen-time and Chaganty’s attempts to skew the audience’s perception of her character. But, the moments when she’s on-screen (particularly during the live-broadcast moments) she positively stands out.

As for the film’s glitches flaws, Chaganty does veer towards sentimentality at times. This particularly becomes prevalent when he relies on Torin Borrowdale‘s musical score, which is quite jarring considering that the film takes place on technological screens. Some restraint would have also been beneficial as to how much Chaganty and cinematographer Juan Sebastian Baron zoom in & out of the screens to telegraph the drama or hint towards revelations. Although this is perhaps understandable given that it is likely done to cater to those in the audience that are not computer-literate. There are also the plot contrivances that pile up during the third act when all the revelations and character reveals come into place, which do detract from the plausibility of the situation. I mean, how did that character accomplish all that, in that short amount of time?

However, overall, with clever and immersive storytelling (thanks to its creative use of the technology) great performances, rich characterizations, surprising twists and ample amounts of food for thought, director Aneesh Chaganty has made a great feature debut with Searching. I can’t wait to see what he’ll come up with next.

 

FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)

Searching hits cinemas this Thursday 13th September