Searching: Makes Your Desktop a Star
A concept like the one used to convey the plot of Searching is a risky venture. It’s not dependable and has to do a lot to even be sustainable for an hour and forty minutes, requiring completely new ways to create suspense, develop characters, and move the story along. Director Aneesh Chaganty took this challenge with all its hurdles and did the best in his ability to make it work.
This is a film shot entirely from the point-of-view of computer screens and smartphones, an idea that’s been attempted before but never to warm reception. However Chaganty manages much more with the gimmick than is to be expected, as even with its inherent flaws this movie and its presentation never bores you.
It revolves around the disappearance of a teenager Margot Kim (Michelle La) and her father David’s (John Cho) attempt to investigate and find her through clues in her internet and social media history, uncovering her secrets along the way and making connections with the help of his case detective (Debra Messing).
This camera allows for an intimacy few other movies can attain. It gives the audience a first-person perspective of what David is seeing, doing, and learning. This means there are portions of the movie where there’s little to no dialogue and all we’re seeing is David googling stuff or watching videos. However the movie still retains the effect of its suspense, because we’re finding out things alongside him -sometimes we even know something before he does. For example, we see his daughter calling him a few times on the screen while the webcam shows him asleep. This movie finds a way to make research, clicking links, reconfiguring security settings, and simply searching in a web browser thrilling. Because in addition to the grim score and the mystery, we know how hideous a place the internet can be, and are as anxious David is at what it’ll reveal about his daughter. And there’s some creativity in the format as well -there would have to be. The easy parts are conveying conversations -the movie just needs to show a video call. Action is a bit more difficult. For that the movie uses video footage on news sites or a Youtube page to show what David’s doing in the world outside his laptop. Pictures are used as a frequent communication tool as well.
But while Chaganty proves his story can be told through merely screens, there are limitations to this commitment to style. The audience is divorced from the action, the developments that take place elsewhere, because they become a third person viewer. Plot-wise there are things that don’t make sense, confrontations that don’t have the weight they deserve; and also, while there are a number of moments where David has his webcam on himself, there are large chunks of the movie where he’s either reduced to the corner or not on screen at all, depriving the movie of a human presence. Ingmar Bergman said “the human face is the great subject of the cinema”, and there are times where Davids’ face needs to be seen in this movie for the sake of an emotional response or confused reaction, and instead we’re just looking at a webpage with little more than still images of people on it.
In spite of this John Cho does a really good job acting the desperate, fearful, and angered father. Everyone can relate to his drive and determination. Additionally, Michelle La is a superb troubled teenager, and Debra Messing is pretty exemplary too.
Importantly, this movie understands the internet, and goes to great lengths to replicate it. It’s a film whose web designer is just as important as its production designer, but it goes beyond just using real computer software and internet hubs, creating authentic looking sites and search results. Searching understands that the internet can be used as a great tool, but also that it has an extraordinary capacity for manipulation, secrecy, and harassment. There’s a frightening implication in a series of Facebook messages David finds, trolls attack Davids’ character in comments sections -an offensive gif is created, and of course we see Margot sexually harassed on a livestream. The movie also has some things to say on internet anonymity, what people can get away with when they’re hidden behind usernames and private accounts, and just how dangerous that environment is.
With factors such as these, this movie does present a pretty decent mystery in a curious way. That’s what Searching is really, a curiosity. One worth checking out for its novelty and how it can tell a story with that novelty, even if it falls short of other films that have had similar plots.