So much of our modern lives is dictated by how we interact with screens, whether it’s a smart phone or tablet or computer, that it only seemed to be a matter of time before the movies would address the staggering cultural change.
First it was the 2014 horror film Unfriended, which told its cyberbullying revenge tale entirely from the perspective of computer screens during a group Skype call. Now comes the new techno-thriller Searching, which employs the same general setup of capturing everything from the point-of-view of these ever-present screens, but does so in service of a much more human story with real stakes.
The film stars John Cho as David Kim, a single father doing his best to raise his 16-year-old daughter Margot (Michelle La) while still struggling to cope with the recent loss of his wife to cancer. After waking up to multiple missed calls from Margot, David becomes worried when he’s unable to reach her in the morning and does some preliminary research to try to track her down. When parts of Margot’s story don’t add up and she isn’t heard from in more than 36 hours, the missing persons case begins and Detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing) begins working with David to track Margot’s digital footprint for information that will lead to her safe return.
It may not initially seem enticing to watch a mystery like this unfold from the vantage point of the protagonist’s electronic devices, but first-time director Aneesh Chaganty knows just how to pace the action on-screen. He manages to wring an uncanny amount of tension from tasks that we’re used to completing every day like web searching and checking e-mail by embedding clues behind each click. Thanks to the skillful editing of Nick Johnson and Will Merrick, there’s a propulsive energy and seemingly unstoppable momentum behind every scene that delivers the story’s twists and turns at a break-neck speed while (hopefully) not losing the audience in the process.
Another key to this film’s success is just how much technical accuracy and precision goes into every tab and window that’s on display. Tech-savvy movie goers will have fun picking out every detail that appears on screen. It also helps that David’s sleuthing tends to be remarkably clever, as he finds quick but credible solutions to obstacles like not knowing the password to an account, while also not being able to log in to the e-mail address linked to the same account. The less technologically inclined among us may not be able to catch every single bread crumb on the trail, but it doesn’t take a computer whiz to follow the touching family story that serves as the film’s emotional backbone.
Always at the center of the film’s action is John Cho, an actor who’s probably best known for playing Sulu in the new Star Trek films and was excellent in last year’s Columbus, but has the chance to really shine in a performance that’s often unaccompanied. The anxiety and desperation that his character feels is often on full display from his computer’s camera, but Cho also conveys a progression of stress that’s completely believable for any parent who would have to endure a situation like this. Searching is a terrific thrill-ride that utilizes its screen-based gimmick to maximum effect, while also telling a poignant story about raising children in the age of the internet.
Coming to theaters this weekend
The Nun, starring Demián Bichir and Taissa Farmiga, is the latest in the Conjuring series of horror films that investigates the origins of the ominous Valak character introduced in The Conjuring 2.
Peppermint, starring Jennifer Garner, is a vigilante action thriller from the director of Taken that centers around a woman’s search for justice following the murder of her husband and daughter.
Also opening at Cinema Center is Madeline’s Madeline, which scored rave reviews at Sundance Film Festival earlier this year and stars Helena Howard as a theater student on the verge of an artistic breakthrough.