'Searching': Film Review | Sundance 2018

A matter of life and death, all online, all the time.

John Cho and Debra Messing star in Aneesh Chaganty's contemporary spin on the missing-child thriller.

The first thing people will always say about Searching is, "Oh, yeah, the film that’s completely set on a computer screen." But if it were just that, it would be far from enough. Impressively, first-time filmmaker and former Google commercials creator Aneesh Chaganty has also made a real movie, the story of a family that morphs into a crime drama that gradually ratchets up the tension as all good thrillers must, one that’s well constructed and acted as well as novel in its storytelling techniques. With Sony having bought worldwide rights at Sundance and there being a virtually guaranteed audience among electronics-savvy young viewers, this fastidiously made suspense piece could potentially exceed expectations by drawing those curious about how this new narrative threshold was conquered.

With the movie already having won the 2018 Alfred P. Sloan Feature Film Prize for works pertaining to science or technology, it’s perplexing why it was stuck in Sundance’s more esoteric Next sidebar when it would have been one of the better entries in the narrative competition this year. As much as any film at the festival, Searching delivers dramatic satisfactions in addition to technical sophistication.

Centered on the Korean-American Kim family living in San Jose, California, the film in its first few minutes breathlessly demonstrates how the essentials of a family’s life can be portrayed online. We see snippets of childhood home videos of little Margot Kim, of her playing piano through her first decade of life, clowning with her with dad David and mother Pamela, the usual sort of “home movies” that most modern families have at this point. But the focus increasingly falls upon the mom and her battle with lymphoma; we witness the ups and downs of hope and dread during hospital visits, her successful treatment, then her relapse and death in 2015. The family laptop documents it all, building cumulatively to poignantly emotional effect.

Sliding into the present day, fortysomething David (John Cho) spends a great deal of his time online, and there is a certain comfort in this: Don’t we all? The familiarity of most of the places David inhabits online invites dramatic complicity, as does his desire to keep up with his beloved daughter. But as the film enters real-time territory, David can’t reach Margot and becomes concerned; she doesn’t respond to repeated messages and he finds that she’s uncharacteristically left her laptop at home.

David’s alarm mounts when he calls Margot’s piano teacher and learns that, despite her lessons having been paid for, she hasn’t shown up for a lesson in six months. He contacts a couple of other people, with equally frustrating results, and finally faces the fact that something’s up.

With panic setting in, David reports his daughter missing to local police and is put in touch with a detective named Rosemary (Debra Messing), who’s very serious and gets right on the case. The more time goes by in such a case, the less likely a positive outcome will result, and this is where the nexus between crime narrative and technology becomes most deeply engrossing.

Working his way into Margot’s email and Facebook accounts, David learns all sorts of bewildering and/or disturbing things about his daughter. Practically everyone knows what it’s like to go down the rabbit hole of the internet, to pursue links and connections and chains of thought leading who-knows-where, and the film, by sticking to what David keeps finding, reproduces this sort of web voyage of disturbing discovery. It also yields some information the detective finds useful, her to-the-point, business-like efficiency providing a counter-balance to David’s mounting panic.

The pic, then, is like spending a little over an hour-and-a-half on the internet, except that a mind perhaps more wily than yours is organizing your online voyage. Early on you’re made to feel that you’re in good hands, such is the technical and dramatic expertise Chaganty, co-writer Sev Ohanian, editors Will Merrick and Nick Johnson (what a job they must have had!) and the rest of the team pour into this novel enterprise.

Unavoidably, perhaps, Searching starts feeling more like a conventional suspense film once the deep probe for information on the internet is over and the film enters real time and a possible resolution; there are a lot of present-tense cutaways to TV coverage and a reliance upon surveillance coverage cameras. By this time, too, some of the novelty has also begun to wear off, but there are a couple of good twists in a plot that’s pretty solid strictly from a crime story point of view.

In all respects, what Chaganty and his team have pulled off here is something both novel and accomplished.

Production company: Bazelevs Productions
Cast: John Cho, Debra Messing
Director: Aneesh Chaganty
Screenwriters: Aneesh Chagany, Sev Ohanian
Producers: Timur Bekmambetov, Sev Ohanian, Adam Sidman, Natalie Qasabian
Executive producers: Ana Liza Muravina, Maria Zatulovskaya, Igor Tsay
Director of photography: Juan Sebastian Baron
Production designer: Angel Herrera
Costume designer: Emily Moran
Music: Torin Borrowdale
Casting: Lindsey Weissmueller
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Next)

101 minutes

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