Searching, directed by Aneesh Chaganty, is basically Taken without guns, without fight scenes, and without Liam Neeson. That probably sounds like the worst movie pitch ever, but oddly it’s accurate.
The film is about a desperate father’s tireless search for his missing daughter. But instead of trawling through an underground sex trafficking ring in Paris, the rabbit hole that the dad in this movie must navigate is the Internet.
When his teenage daughter Margot (Michelle La) doesn’t return home from study group one night, and isn’t at school the next day either, single parent David Kim (John Cho) begins combing through her online footprint for leads. Think emails, Facebook, chatrooms, live streams, and bank statements.
It’s a fascinating premise and one that lends itself seamlessly to Chaganty’s choice of narrative device. The film unfolds entirely on screens – computers, mobile phones, television, CCTV cameras, hidden cameras, you name it. Even when the case is handed over to the cops and is being investigated by a compassionate detective (Debra Messing), the plot still unravels on screens.
To be fair this isn’t the first film to employ this idea. The 2014 horror film Unfriended – about a supernatural entity that penetrates an online chat group – also played out largely on computer screens and smartphones, although that premise felt gimmicky and contrived. The same isn’t true of Searching which seldom gets tiresome or boring during its 100-minute runtime, a testament to the sharp skills of Indian-American Chaganty, who’s co-written the script with Sev Ohanian.
But it’s difficult to talk about the plot in any detail for fear of ruining the tension and its multiple twists. What’s worth noting is a keen eye for detail, and how passage of time is reflected through technology and interface upgrade. You’ll chuckle at the memory of those pixelated Windows XP screens that are replaced by sleek Apple OS designs. It’s worth mentioning also that John Cho (who you might remember from the Harold & Kumar movies) conveys a growing sense of anguish as the distressed father, and that no part of his affecting performance is diluted by the film’s unique narrative format.
For the most part I was genuinely intrigued and at the edge of my seat as the suspense unfolded. Chaganty has elevated a standard missing-person drama into something quite extraordinary on the strength of his inventive storytelling.
Searching works as a cautionary tale about the possible horrors of technology and the Internet. But it is as much about unconditional, unreasonable parental love. It’s also one of the best films I’ve seen this year. Don’t miss it. I’m going with four out of five.
Rating: 4 / 5