*** (out of 4)
Aneesh Chaganty’s Searching tells the story of David Kim (John Cho), a suburban office-worker who’s forced to live through every parent’s worst nightmare. At the movie’s start, David’s teenage daughter, Margot (Michelle La), tells him that she’ll be out all night, claiming that she has to study for AP Bio with her friends. The next day, however, she doesn’t show up to school – and although David tries calling her several times, he keeps reaching her voicemail. After 24 hours have elapsed since their last conversation, David no longer has a choice: he calls the police to report Margot as missing.
The first thing you’ll notice about Searching is its major stylistic conceit. In a technique that’ll probably remind you of 2014’s Unfriended, every shot in Searching is some kind of digital screen. Important conversations between David and Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing), the detective assigned to track Margot down, are depicted through a FaceTime interface; exposition is recounted via news broadcasts, YouTube videos, and tweets; and at one point, Chaganty even uses a screensaver to convey the passage of time. This screen-based approach could easily have been a gimmick, a crude means of making the film different for different’s sake. But many of Searching’s key plot turns arise from evidence discovered online, and in keeping with that reality, Chaganty’s style stands as an apt, oft-chilling illustration of just how pervasive technology has become in our daily lives.
As memorable and powerful as it is, however, Chaganty’s stylistic approach isn’t the most interesting part of Searching. That honor would actually go to the narrative’s seemingly self-contradictory representation of modern-day parenting. As we come to see fairly quickly, David is extremely attached to Margot. He frequently expresses impatience with the pace of Vick’s investigation, and despite Vick’s directives to the contrary, he eventually decides to engage in amateur detective work of his own. Furthermore, at one point, David even goes so far as to physically assault one of Margot’s classmates – all because said classmate made a joke on Facebook about causing her disappearance.
The irony of David’s actions, however, is that he actually knows very little about the person he’s so bent on finding. When Vick asks him to call some of Margot’s friends, for instance, he ends up contacting the mother of a student Margot knew in elementary school: he simply doesn’t have any info that’s more up-to-date. After digging through his daughter’s social media accounts, moreover, he’s shocked to discover that she’s a loner who secretly quit piano lessons, smokes weed with his brother (Joseph Lee), and still grieves over the death of her mother (Sara Sohn) from cancer. Needless to say, this real Margot is a far cry from the happy, well-behaved musicophile he initially imagined her to be.
The discrepancy between David’s behavior and knowledge vis-à-vis Margot naturally leaves you curious. Is his attachment to Margot a way of compensating for his strained relationship with her? A way of quelling personal insecurities? Unfortunately, although Searching’s narrative often encourages you to raise these questions, Chaganty never gets around to actually answering them. In the film’s second half, he prioritizes the generation of suspense over the development of David’s character profile. And the result is that the movie devolves into a conventional thriller, a story more interested in introducing “Gotcha!” twists than deepening our understanding of the characters and their worldview. (It doesn’t help, either, that many of these twists also feel outlandish and implausible.)
Still, on balance, the good things about Searching largely outweigh the bad. Even if Chaganty doesn’t expand on the ideas he introduces, you’ll find it hard to forget his depiction of obsessed yet estranged parents. And the film also benefits from John Cho, an actor who’s finally starting to get the leading roles he deserves. As a character, David takes actions that border on the extreme, and his zeal will often leave you unsettled. But thanks to Cho’s exceptional performance, we realize that David acts from motives that are completely relatable. If nothing else, then, Searching is an indication that Cho and Chaganty will both be ones to watch in the years to come.
Starring: John Cho, Debra Messing, Michelle La
Running Time: 102 minutes
MPAA Rating: PG-13, “for thematic content, some drug and sexual references, and for language.”
Produced by: Sev Ohanian, Timur Bekmambetov, Natalie Qasabian, Adam Sidman
Written by: Aneesh Chaganty, Sev Ohanian
Directed by: Aneesh Chaganty