It’s a parent’s worst nightmare: a missing child, a teenager suddenly not contactable in our hyper-connected world. When David Kim’s (John Cho) 16-year-old daughter Margot (Michelle La) stops answering her phone, David fears the worst. After reporting his daughter missing, and with the help of Detective Vik (Debra Messing) the investigator assigned to the case, David dives into Margot’s cyber-history to uncover leads on her disappearance. As the hours pass with unsettling information piling up against Margot, David is forced to ask himself how well he really knew his daughter.
Searching is a thriller/drama told entirely through computer screens and ‘found’ news and surveillance footage. The film is directed by Aneesh Chaganty, who co-wrote the script with producer Sev Ohanian.
Searching is not the first to utilise this type of format for the purposes of thriller, following in the footsteps of films like The Cyberbully (2015) and Unfriended (2014), the sequel to which comes out later this year. However, Searching is definitely the best of its kind thus far, and sure to spawn numerous copycats as the genre expands. Searching feels like an updated version of early text-based computer games, and is poised to ride the recent surge in popularity of chat-based thriller fiction apps like Hooked. The film has come at the right time, as we struggle to comprehend our experience of the rapid and unprecedented increase in online activity.
With several carefully placed Easter Eggs of information, Searching will have audiences spending most of the film quickly scanning the background text and images searching for clues to solve the crime first. The film’s attention to detail makes it feel very realistic, heightening the intrigue of the storyline. While John Cho excels as the beleaguered father, and does well to carry a film pieced together with disconnected videos and photos, the acting of some of the supporting cast in minor roles feels incredibly false, upsetting the verisimilitude that had the audience engaged and willing.
As a thriller, Searching does well not to rely on high-adrenaline action scenes or violence in order to hold its audience in suspense. Rather, the film relies on a dramatic score and the audience’s ability to read into the subtleties of cyber etiquette. This, of course, excludes certain audiences for whom the format will be inaccessible and confusing, but in doing so, the film appeals to the majority of others with its innovative medium, striking out as a point of difference against similar family-driven thrillers. There is a sense of nostalgia evoked too at the sight of the Windows XP desktop, and the change in technologies throughout the film is a clever way to highlight the passage of time.
Searching is well-paced for the most part, with a red herring or two to keep audiences on their toes. Scenes outlining family drama are affective and emotional, laying the groundwork for later sympathies, but the film avoids being too heavily sentimental. Moments of humour relieve some tension and play with the social media format.
At its core, Searching looks at a family in grief, but also attempts a tepid warning about the dangers of seeking connection through the internet. However, caution against the interwebs is somewhat mediated by the shocking holes in the film’s justice system, which is enough to make you worry about the real world instead. The coldness and distancing element of the computer screen is a compelling and original way to explore the disconnection between father and daughter. There’s a sense of emptiness permeating the film’s imagery, a loneliness present in the desperate teen’s live-casting into the cyber-void.
Those looking for a fun, modern whodunit, look no further.
I rate this film 7/10.
Searching is in Australian cinemas from 13th September.