Cutting-edge tech and a newfangled storytelling device is at the heart of ex-Google whiz Aneesh Chaganty’s debut feature-length movie Searching. But having had some distance from the film since watching it last week, what stayed with yours truly is the truly seamless and subtle way Searching goes beyond its central “gimmick” to tell a heartfelt story about family, loss and loneliness — and through a tech thriller at that.
The criminally-underused John Cho (Harold and Kumar, Star Trek) throws his arsenal of acting chops behind this role as a grieving widower, who is on the hunt for his missing teenage daughter, Margot (Michelle La). The movie begins with a moving montage, almost like it’s ripped from Pixar’s Up (who can ever forget those devastating four minutes?), that plays out through old footage on a computer screen, and it immediately gets the viewer up to date on the visual language of the film.
Like horror films Unfriended and its sequel Unfriended: Dark Web, Searching unspools on the screens of various devices — iPhones, MacBooks, desktops and spy cameras — as well as through the clever use of social media apps Facebook, Instagram, Instant chat messengers, livestreaming service YouCast, and the like.
Does it work? Mostly. Chaganty weaves a tense thriller that never loses its beat, while also holding on to its emotional core. Even at the height of visceral drama, he injects humour and kindness, easing up on the tension, but also luring you into a false sense of security until the next piece of information drops.
He successfully employs a visual language, committing to it from the first scene to the last unapologetically, and you wonder why more stories haven’t been told this way, given the proliferation of screens in our daily lives.
The story does take some implausible turns, as David Kim (Cho) trawls through his daughter’s MacBook, eking out every bit of information he can about her final whereabouts, but you forgive them mostly because the central conceit allows for some amount of cheating.
The star of the film is no doubt Cho, who lets himself unravel before the camera, whether that’s the cinematographer’s lens or a webcam on a home desktop. From the early scenes showing the easy camaraderie between him and his daughter to the later shots when his worry and pain get the better of him, Cho is a masterclass through and through, and we hope to see him in many productions soon, thanks to Searching.
The film also stars Debra Messing (Will & Grace) as the lead detective assigned to the missing person case. While she manages to pull off the rough and tough cop role without difficulty, she does appear a little clunky and unsure next to Cho.
And while the ending feels removed from the subtlety and the emotional depth of the first two acts of the film, taking away some of the impact, Searching largely remains an effective piece of cinema, perhaps even the start of something new.
Don’t miss it!
Searching releases in the UAE on September 27.