Imagine if Up and Unfriended had a baby. But a stupid, ugly baby starring John Cho. You’d have Searching, a computer screen-set crime-thriller with a heavy dose of sentimentality but zero emotional intelligence. When his 16-year-old daughter Margot (Michelle La) goes missing, widowed father David Kim (John Cho) turns to her social media accounts to try to find her. There, he discovers he didn’t really know his daughter at all.
Making his feature directorial debut, writer/helmer Aneesh Chaganty offers an intriguing and twisting story that’s told across social media, news reports, security footage, and Facetime, treating the movie theater screen as one big computer screen. It’s a conceit that’s been done before, most successfully with 2014’s paranormal-thriller Unfriended (also produced by Timur Bekmambetov). But Searching’s dedication to the conceit is half-hearted and haphazard. Unfurled in real time, Unfriended places the audience in the literal point-of-view of bubbly brunette Blaire Lilly as she’s forced to play a dangerous game online with her high school friends. By never cutting away from this shot and device, it bound us to her, which provided a claustrophobic suspense by trapping us with the tormented teen.
In Searching, we are bound to a computer screen, but not the film’s protagonist. For much of the film, David scours Margot’s accounts on Facebook, Tumblr, and “Youcast,” for clues to her disappearance. A Facetime preview window of his worried face is what we get in lieu of more traditional close-up cinematography. When he leaves the computer, the film follows him by cutting to a Youtube page where local news reports provide exposition dumps through anchormen and police press conferences. Not only does this squander the could-be claustrophobic tension that Searching could find, but also it keeps our hero at a distance, as it does our emotional engagement. Grainy footage and frustratingly wide shots of pivotal scenes mean Cho’s performance is largely lost to this poorly thought out conceit.
Now, you might be wondering why I brought Up into this. Well, that’s because of the aggressive backstory plopped into Searching’s sloppy opening. In Up, we got a graceful montage ushering us through the shared lives of Carl and his beloved wife Ellie. It deftly painted their joy, and how the loss of her made him a cantankerous old grouch. Searching sets up a similar backstory for David and Margot, but through online calendar alerts, downloaded photos, and painful emails. First day of school photos and videos of piano lessons with mom swiftly but clumsily parade us through Margot’s childhood. A Google search of “how to survive lymphoma as a family” sets up tragedy. And a deleted event “Mom comes home” is meant to be crushing. But there’s a remoteness to watching someone’s life reduced down to app alerts, emails, and a handful of photos. So when we’re pitched into the present and Margot is shown only through a hasty Facetime exchange with her dad, it’s difficult to feel terribly invested. Chaganty has not established characters, just tragedy.
While the beginning was frustrating, the execution gets increasingly infuriating. Refusing to commit to staying on the full-frame of its computer screen setup, the cinematography zooms in on David’s Facetime preview when he’s getting bad news Or it jump-cuts to a close-up of a crucial piece of information. The former makes for a movie that looks woefully amateurish in its staging. The latter makes it seem that Chaganty either has no confidence in his mis-en-scene’s ability to communicate even simple clues, or else he thinks his audience is stupid. For instance, it’s not enough for David to search for a phone number and find it on a website. The film then cuts to a close-up of the number on the website, and then David highlights it. This happens twice, because even the first belabored depiction of finding a phone number isn’t enough to be sure we’ll get it the second time?
Searching is not good. In fact, I’ve called it sloppy, ugly, and stupid. And yet, it’s kind of fun. It’s very Lifetime movie in its predictable schtick of “kids do stuff online their parents have no idea about!” But there’s something endearing and funny when on the advice of Margot’s classmate, Patrick looks for his daughter’s Tumblr account and Googles “Tumbler.” Then as the turns keep coming, Searching develops the pulpy appeal of a trashy mystery novel. Even as I hated how its story was being told, I was hooked on its mystery. I wanted to know what happened to Margot just like I want to know how The Choking Game girls will meet a hard lesson or a cartoonishly wicked husband will meet a cruel end. Of course some bits are predictable, and yet calling out the ending of these kinds of melodramatic crime tales is no small part of the fun.
I wouldn’t recommend seeing this in a theater. I suspect its internetness will be less vexing on a smaller screen. And really, this is a great fit for a rainy Saturday, where you just want to crash out, eat popcorn, and feel a bit smug about figuring out a painfully mediocre movie with a juicy ending.
Searching makes its Canadian premiere at the Fantasia Film Festival on July 26th. It hits theaters in the US on August 3rd.