Screens. Computer screens. Phone screens. Tablet screens. Screens within screens (e.g., iChat, Messenger, etc.). We live by (and through) screens. Sometimes we even die by them. Walk onto any bus or train in a major (or minor) city. Walk down a street in a major (or minor) city. Chances are, the result will be the same: A sea of downturned, blue-lit faces, their attention fixed on a virtual space (a text, a game, a video), often listening to music or audio, closed off to the analog world, simultaneously connected and disconnected. Both a cautionary tale and anti-cautionary tale and how technology can do both bad – connect a teen girl with a potential abductor – and good – help her father find her via her social media accounts, writer-director Aneesh Chaganty’s feature-length debut, Searching, takes a shallow dive into the deep end of the social media/tech pool, but where Chaganty swipes left on the subject, he also delivers an incredibly gripping, engaging suspense thriller, a credit both to a screenplay that mines universal fears parents have about their children and the world, and John Cho’s committed, persuasive performance as an increasingly frantic father desperate to find his lost daughter.
Chaganty doesn’t open Searching with Margot Kim’s (Michelle La) disappearance or the immediate aftermath, but with a moving, Up-inspired montage of Margot, her father, David (Cho), and her late mother, Pamela (Sara Sohn), using old tech and operating systems (old Windows machines) to ground moviegoers in the past. The montage builds on old photos and videos of Margot over the better part of a decade and Pamela’s inevitably futile battle with the cancer that takes her life. The montage sets the stage for David’s controlling overprotectiveness, Margot’s emotional distance from her father, and their inability to connect except superficially via phone (FaceTime) or text updates. While David deals with losing his wife by simply ignoring the pain and grief, Margot naturally turns to the Internet where she can find comfort among supposedly like-minded people.
When Margot doesn’t return from a late-night study session, David understandably becomes concerned. Chaganty takes David through a believable set of emotions, ranging from concern, to doubt, to temporary acceptance (she’s ditched class, she’s with friends). When every potentially positive alternative proves fruitless, David reports Margot as missing to the local, Silicon Valley. They send Vick (Debra Messing), an experienced detective who enlists David in the virtual (online) search for his daughter. While Vick chases down leads in the real world, David begins to piece together Margot’s life over the last few months via her social media accounts. In a bit of sleuthing of his own familiar to anyone who’s forgotten a password, he jumps from account to account until he can reset one password, then a cascade of passwords allowing him access to the equivalent of Margot’s inner life. In Chaganty’s capable hands, it’s far more tense and suspenseful than it sounds.
Chaganty lays down important clues about Margot’s past and where she might have gone breadcrumb-style, hinting at her current fate through an online news article wedged into one side of a computer screen while free-flowing texts unspool on one side or dropping clues (look for the school’s mascot and the screen name of Margot’s online-only friend, a background character who keeps making an appearance or even a quote embedded in a background image of another key character). They’re the types of hints, clues, and foreshadowing that repay viewers the second or third time around, but they’re never so heavy-handed or blunt that they give Chaganty’s game away. Chaganty also understands that even the most basic mystery-thriller needs a red herring or two to keep the suspense high and moviegoers continually engaged.
Minus one or two cheats that break away from the point of view of the main characters (i.e., news coverage involving the search with David onscreen), Chaganty keeps the faith with moviegoers, embracing the “all screens all the time” aesthetic to spin out a story that’s ultimately less a cautionary tale (or the opposite) about the dangers of technology or social media, but a simple, straightforward story centered about a grief-stricken father attempting to emotionally reconnect with his daughter. That element alone, carefully pieced together over roughly 100 minutes, ultimately elevates Searching above an admittedly clever conceit (some will say “gimmick” and walk away) into the rare mystery-thriller that delivers on both a story level and an emotional one. On the strength of Searching, Chaganty’s future looks so bright he’ll have to wear sunglasses at night.