David Lee (John Cho), his wife Pamela (Sara Sohn) and daughter Margot (Michelle La) are a typical close-knit family: the doting parents who have encouraged their daughter to follow in her mother’s step as a potentially great pianist. But when David loses Sara to cancer his relationship to Margot becomes more complicated as he struggles to balance being a responsible parent and letting Margot find her own way.
After assuring him – via Skype – that she’s spending a late night studying with a female friend, Margot disappears. Three calls to David’s phone during the night go unanswered because he’s asleep and in the day that follows, David slowly goes from annoyance and concern to outright fear that he missed an essential opportunity. Preliminary calls around friends and family to find her lead nowhere but it quickly becomes apparent that Margot has been keeping secrets from him. Has she run away? Has she been abducted? Eventually seeking the help of the police, David is contacted by Detective Vick (Debra Messing) who says she will do all she can to help. Over the next few days, David continues to explore possibilities on his own, coming across new leads and dead-ends in regular succession and it appears Vick’s efforts are no less fruitful. She tells David he may have to face the possibility Margot doesn’t want to be found…
But David isn’t willing to give up…
Turn on your computer and it’s easy to note that 2018 has been the kind of year to produce a slew of box-office-igniting horror movies, to argue how we evaluate real or ‘fake’ news and the impact social platforms have on our everyday lives. So it’s interesting that the biggest chill going down the spine of anyone over 30 years old will likely not come from a demonic nun, restless ghost or senate-hearing legal subpoena… but a film called Searching that takes the story of a missing person and spins it out into a horrifyingly observant pondering on a generational and even cultural divide with all of its scenes taking place on computer/media screens.
The success of Searching is that while that ‘screen’ format could have been a cheap stunt/gimmick to which the production nailed itself at the expense of all else, the result is actually a decent tale successfully drawing significant power by being told from a different perspective. The central story itself pushes no boundaries (with an arc familiar to any one of hundreds of hours of television procedurals) but by integrating the idea of just how much we can be tracked by our social media posts, blogging or just standard GPS, it gives a different sense of energy to the tale. The film simultaneously tells an unravelling amateur detective story but also casts a wry eye over the way we submit our details, experiences and memories to strangers and the way that information can subsequently be organised, changed and disseminated in ever more inaccurate ways.
In what otherwise could have been a ‘Lifetime‘ movie of the week template, John Cho succeeds in playing David Kim in a subtle, believable way, one that carefully threads the character between still-grieving husband, over-protective father and genuinely (and understandably) concerned parent as we see his world imploding. There’s an ever more scary balance shown between showing how little he knows about Margot’s social life and the ease in which the world behind the computer screen makes it easier and harder to find out the real truth. On one hand, a raft of protected passwords on the likes of Google, Facebook and Instagram initially frustrate but fall down like dominos once he has just one of them… on another it becomes clear that ‘information’ is often entirely subjective and hard to verify.
It would be exaggerating to describe Searching as profound – realistically it’s more a well-crafted melodrama for the post-modern modem generation – but it does feels finely-tuned and expertly-crafted to the current climate. In a week where Facebook and Twitter sent their top people to answere questions from politicians about safeguards and strategies to prevent abuse, Searching probably achieves more impact than a whole day of hearings. Director/co-writer Aneesh Chaganty has deftly produced a finished film that has one finger on the keyboard and another on the pulse of our electronic lives. It could easily have paid simple lip-service to the age of the internet, but instead it uses its central mystery to observe the changes in how we tell the stories of our lives on screen rather than to each other directly
And, importantly, it’s that human element beating at the centre of Searching that helps raise it up. From the start, it draws us in, the montage of the Kim family uploading their early triumphs and tribulations has the same sense of hopeful everyday whimsy and gut-punch sadness as the opening to Pixar‘s UP. Thereafter the beats take the mundane and edge them with significance – what do we miss when our gaze is directed to something else? It’s another example of old-school movie tricks combining with modern sensibilities: the sheer emotional impact of a call that doesn’t get answered, the way that something is hesitatingly typed and corrected before being sent speaks to mind-set, the suspicions caused by certain convenient lies and the diversions caused by differing agendas… all undeniably keeping you invested in a surprisingly primal way as the investigation continues (and with Chaganty providing important subtle clues and agonising red-herrings as he goes). As the media-interest in Margot’s true fate grows some of the people that David encounters online help and hinder – presenting very different personas and motivations in real-life. Some of Margot’s acquaintances suddenly describe themselves as ‘close friends’ (and vice versa) and the pack mentality of various social platforms are quick to create a tsunami of hash-tagged opinions that masquerade as informed information as the actual investigation stalls.
Searching‘s climax and explanations may divide audiences, but by that time, it has achieved everything it needs to. It has made you care about Margot’s fate, sympathise with David’s despair and – most importantly – cast a suspicious look at your television, your computer and your smartphone in a way you haven’t before. The realisation comes that the longer you look, the more they look into you.
Searching is released on DVD in the UK this week…