Movie Review: Searching
By Matthew Huntley
September 15, 2018
“Searching” is a missing person thriller that tells most of its story through a computer or phone screen, along with various messaging and social media platforms such as FaceTime, Skype, Instagram, and, of course, Twitter and Facebook. Watching the film, it’s obvious what director and co-writer Aneesh Chaganty wants to say—that computers and the Internet, with all of the information they hold on us, make it all too easy for anyone to discover who we are, who we communicate with, where we’ve been, what we buy, and what secrets we keep.
And yet, at the same, the film also argues that even though computers and the Internet can seemingly tell us anything about someone, they can also tell us nothing, and in fact they often leave us feeling isolated, bewildered, stressed out and anxious. Our devices and the Internet are a double-edged sword to be sure.
Of course, this message is nothing new. There have already been several Hollywood movies that present this same commentary— “The Net”, “Catfish”, “Her”—so “Searching”’s argument isn’t exactly groundbreaking or inspired. However, Chaganty’s methods for delivering it are more unique and help an otherwise traditional genre picture stand on its own. Even though most of us look at a computer screen every day, having it play a pivotal role in a thriller plot makes it more exciting to watch, even scary, so the experience as a whole ends up having more significance than we initially expect. If it’s a basic thriller you seek, “Searching” gets the job done; if you’re looking for something more creative and substantive, it fills that role too.
The missing person in the film is a high school student named Margot (Michelle La). At first, when Margot doesn’t come home from school, her father David (John Cho) thinks she’s just at one of her piano lessons, or that she went on a camping trip with friends. But after a whole day goes by and David still hasn’t heard from her, uncertainty and paranoia begin to set in, and as he begins “searching” for Margot through all sorts of digital channels, not only does he not have any idea where she is, he also learns he doesn’t know nearly as much about his daughter as he thought. On one level, Margot is his little girl; on another, she’s a complete stranger.
You’d think David and Margot were close, not least because of the film’s opening montage, which shows David’s wife Pam (Sarah Sohn) chronicling their daughter’s happy and loving upbringing with photos and videos, saving them to her computer’s hard drive and posting them on social media. The screen then switches over to Margot’s desktop and her digital calendar as she marks the day when her mom gets to come home from the hospital after receiving cancer treatment. Sadly, this calendar event becomes unnecessary.
Despite David being a widower and Margot a motherless adolescent girl, the way they speak to each other makes their relationship seem normal enough. But one of Chaganty’s points is that what gets spoken or messaged between people isn’t necessarily representative of how they actually feel. It takes real, open conversations to relay our emotions, and the film constantly reiterates the disequilibrium we experience when we don’t know the truth about an aspect of our lives, especially when it’s regarding those we love. And in this day and age, we often reach for our computers or phones to provide answers and relief, but they aren’t always reliable.
David eventually files a missing person’s report with the San Jose Police Department and is somewhat relieved when he learns Detective Vick (Debra Messing) is heading the case. A quick Google search of Vick shows she’s received several commendations and her Facebook page suggests she’s a devoted mother herself. David tries to help out with the case, but his relationship with Margot compromises his better judgement and soon enough there are videos posted online of David picking fights with people he thinks are suspects. He even thinks his ne’er-do-well, marijuana-smoking brother (Joseph Lee) may have something to do with her disappearance, but again, the film underlines the fact that David’s thoughts and feelings stem only from what he’s read and interprets from a screen and not what he knows to be the actual truth.
What the actual truth is in “Searching,” I’ll obviously not reveal. It is, after all, a mystery and thriller. And to its credit, the mystery surrounding Margot’s disappearance remains intriguing and unpredictable throughout, and yet Chaganty and Sev Ohanian’s screenplay is careful not to cheat when it comes to the possibilities or plausibility of the situation. The thrills are genuine, too, no doubt because of the tension Chaganty creates just by ceaselessly showing a computer or phone monitor, which can be inherently agitating. The combination of the lack of humans, the bright, digital interfaces, and the sound effects of the messaging platforms often make for a distressing context. Chaganty is well aware of this and uses it to his advantage. Just as the plot unwinds and David makes new discoveries, it simultaneously winds us up and puts us in a state of genuine unease, which is the point of a film like “Searching.” And in addition to thrilling and entertaining us, the film could arguably serve as a warning about what can happen to our states of mind and general well-being when we spend too much time with (and rely too heavily on) technology instead of other human beings.
“Searching” may be standard in a lot of ways and many of its points have already been made by several movies that have come before it, but even so, we leave the theater feeling engaged, stirred up and emotionally touched. John Cho is at the center of the film, and here he proves his range goes beyond crude comedies like “American Pie” and “Harold & Kumar,” as well as established franchises like “Star Trek.” He helps us get behind David and really empathize with his dilemma, not least because we can easily picture ourselves using the same media he does to find crucial answers, some of which, the film wants us to remember, can only be verified through human communication.