The found footage film is in a boom period thanks to the horror genre. We’ve seen movie like ‘Paranormal Activity’, ‘Rec’ and other show you don’t need a massive budget to get a massive audience. In the past decade these movie have also lead to an inspired offshoot. Since we have converted most of our lives to digital bits of information and we are always starring at some kind of screen, Nelson Greives and Blumhouse had the brilliant idea of screen-casting a computer’s desktop to tell a contained horror story for the modern world. ‘Searching’ strives to be an inspired marriage of the found footage film and an old fashioned Hitchcockian thriller. There are moments in ‘Searching’ that feel like it’s going to be something special. However, the plot and the limits of it’s narrative structure hold it back from achieving that.
‘Searching’ is the debut feature from Aneesh Chaganty and stars John Cho (‘Star Trek’) as David Kim. The film opens on the iconic grass plains desktop from Windows XP. David and his family are setting up a profile on the new home computer. Through a wonderful opening montage we see a decade of the Kim’s family life unfold. Pictures and videos introduce us to his wife Pamela (Sara Sohn) and daughter Margot as they’re placed in folders. Emails are used to let the audience know that Pamela is diagnosed with Lymphoma. More emails and videos show us the cancer going into remission and eventually a fatal relapse. A Google calendar notification of Margot’s that reads “Mom coming home” is continually moved further and further back. We see the family discover Facebook, YouTube, and switch from PC to Mac like so many of us did.
Staring at a computer screen in a movie theater shouldn’t be this emotionally investing. Yet, you hold back tears when Margot finally removes the event from her calendar. This is due to both how ingrained our online existence has become to our very being and the brilliant editing done Nick Johnson & Will Merrick. Throughout the film they find ways to make the mundane and stationary look cinematic.
‘Searching’ moves forward a year after Pamela’s death and David is doing his best to be there for his daughter by giving her space to get over her mom’s passing. Margo (Michelle La) and him are mainly are communicating through Facetime or text messages. During one of those video calls, she informs him that she will be staying late at her study group. However, David awakes the next morning to find she has not come home. Eventually Margot is made a missing person and Detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing) shows up to lead the police investigation.
John Cho’s performance is as believable as is it strong. He’s able to bring both of the fundamental aspects of David’s character to life. Early in the film he is a perfectly boring suburban dad. Once the story gets in motion though, we watch him descend into his own kind of madness as he searches for his daughter. Also he conveys all this in close-ups on a webcam that limit his ability to physically express his charecter.
Debra Messing’s Detective Vick was more hit and miss with me. She has a couple quiet scenes with Cho where they discuss what it means to be a parent. Those are her best moments of the film. Other times she speaks to David about clues over Facetime and it feels stilted and strange. Maybe it’s because of the limiting storytelling device we have placed on ‘Searching’ but when we are watching a Police officer conduct an investigation through a web browser it feels incredibly unnatural.
The movie counteracts that unnatural feeling by allowing the images we see to come more and more outside of the desktop. We start to add in news footage from YouTube or cell phone videos from areas around town. A lot of people will be willing to give themselves over to those cheats, but none of these scenes felt honest to me. This is because I was so enthralled by how well Chaganty and his editors kept me on the edge of my seat while I watched a concerned dad retrieve a forgotten email password.
‘Searching’ actually has a lot to say about parenting. About how we try to protect our children from the painful things. About how we inattention can sometimes be the biggest sin for a parent. It all of these loftier ideas that I really did connect with that make the more conventional routes the file takes so disappointing.
‘Searching’ is a middling late summer thriller. The opening half hour give you glimpses of what could be a ‘Rear Window’ for 2018. However, every step the investigation takes after the first act makes the film seem more and more unbelievable. I would still say it’s worth seeing. That recommendation is based solely on John Cho’s outstanding performance. His work here deserves recognition from the mass audience this movie is targeted for. Also, like ‘Crazy Rich Asians’, American audiences deserve to see more diverse faces leading their films. ‘Searching’ will opening nationwide this friday, August 31, 2018.