Searching must have been an easy pitch in 2018: it’s Taken mixed with Unfriended, a digital mystery taking place entirely on laptop and phone screens. Though the concept isn’t necessarily groundbreaking, Chaganty had a chance to prove that the screen grabbing premise was more than just a gimmick. To help sell the style, he and his editing team went to painstaking lengths to ensure the onscreen presentation was authentic. Aside from a few sound effects that had to be adjusted for potential copyright issues (“Marimba” ring tone in a different key) and one fake website central to the plot, the movie excels in convincing viewers that the technology onscreen is real. Facebook looks like Facebook, text conversations have a natural feel to them, and the Webcam footage isn’t shot at a suspiciously high resolution. Despite the polished digital visuals, what did this decision by Chaganty add to the overall movie?
I’m reminded of an anecdote from theater director Peter Brook, who describes coaching students who were staging and directing scenes for his class. When a student of his placed a chair center stage for her scene, he asked her why she chose that spot. She replied, “It doesn’t matter, I just needed a chair onstage.” Everything under a director’s control should be purposeful, he argued. Beyond mere chair placement (usually directly in front of laptop cameras), Searching makes a huge decision right off the bat: everything has to happen on a computer screen. Naturally this limits many conventional filmmaking techniques. There are no multiple angles, no reaction shots (unless a Facetime window is up), dialogue cuts must be masked with artificial glitching, etc. All onscreen performances by John Cho, as David, seem a bit stinted by the constraints of laptop filming, aided by a clunky script. To limit the abilities filmmaking afford so intentionally, there must be some sort of tradeoff, some benefit to switching styles. In other words, why did this story have to be told on a fictional screen?
In Unfriended the reason is blunt, yet palpable. A group of friends who cyberbullied a classmate into committing suicide should naturally meet their comeuppance through supernatural vengeance over Skype. Searching, however, has a much more muddy message about technology. Sure, teenager Margot Kim may have gone missing due to her overuse of social media, but her major flaw wasn’t tech obsession—it was her insistence on hiding her life from her father. Her character could have just as easily been written in any decade, finding comfort among strangers instead of her family, keeping secrets that ultimately put her in danger. Likewise, Searching hints at condemning the public’s optics of high profile crime cases, in a similar vein to Gone Girl. Here, it’s Margot’s father, David, encountering vitriol and antipathy from Twitter feeds and Reddit posts, conspiring about how he might be involved in Margot’s disappearance. Searching falls disappointingly short of condemning this rush to judgement by merely not addressing it. Aside from seeing an article titled “21 Reasons Why David Might Have Done It”—he doesn’t even click the link—, his interactions with this pushback don’t really affect him at all. It’s only once the police literally force him to leave the investigation for assaulting a suspect that he’s discouraged from the search. As for the unclear theme about technology, David utilizes Google Maps and Facebook in order to track down his daughter. The digital assets the movie tries to warn against in one scene end up being our protagonist’s greatest asset.
The movie unfortunately begins with an opening montage that tries to replicate the emotional gut-punch of those opening minutes of Up, with all the charisma of a Google commercial (At our Q&A screening, Chaganty even affectionately called this opening “Up meets a Google commercial,” essentially undermining my insult before I could write it). This might be cute to some, but I found it manipulative and nauseating. The sugary music suddenly striking a sad chord as David drags “Calendar Reminder: Mom comes home from hospital” into the recycle bin feels blatant and amateurish, if only for the fact that pretty quickly it becomes clear how the movie’s screen-only restriction limits dramatic moments. At the core of Searching, the relationship between David and Margot is incredibly promising. That is, of course, until she goes missing, and the movie explores their relationship through home footage and old texts. Especially considering that David’s lesson to learn, that he needs to talk openly with his daughter, is dampened a little bit by the very impersonal way digital communication rules their relationship. It left me yearning for a scene—no matter how brief—of them simply talking to one another openly and distraction-free.
But this is no family drama, and the main attraction of Searching, at least according to promotional materials, is a thrilling detective story for the digital age. Parental anxieties with the internet have been common ever since the early days of Dateline: To Catch a Predator, but we’ve now come to a point in time where teenagers today have somewhat tech-literate parents, less afraid of the World Wide Web. Having David trace the trail of cyber crumbs Margot left before her disappearance feels natural, and at times the connections he makes across social media platforms display some great detective work. Most of the time, however, the sleuthing in Searching feels dull. Watching someone else Google things over and over again for two hours isn’t exactly a riveting experience. When the tension is palpable, the movie is at its best, but when the reveals are predictable, getting to them feels tedious. Some of the greatest moments of the movie were phone calls or confrontations caught on camera; some of the least engaging involved spreadsheets and Google image searches. Adding a shaky cam effect to zoomed-in screen footage merely to “add suspense,” should be a sin.
The story here is a bit unremarkable. After the tearjerking opening, Searching starts to pick up as the suspicious circumstances around Margot’s disappearance start mounting—she’s been skipping her piano lessons while collecting the money, and none of her friends seem to know much about her social life. Approaching the end of the second act, as all the leads begin to dry up and David struggles to iron out all the wrinkles in the police department’s version of the story, the movie poises itself for a big reversal of fortune. Unfortunately, getting to the big twist involves not one but two big coincidences. Coincidences are inevitable in most movie plots, but they shouldn’t be directly leading into the climax. In an especially egregious decision, both of these coincidences involve David placing an image of one person next to another image, and realizing the people in both images are the same person. It was kind of cool the first time, but doing it again minutes later felt uninspired. The surprise twist happens way too fast, and the gaps in the story get filled in way too easily. It all comes out of nowhere, and feels a little undeserved.
I believe in the power of changing conventions. Initially borrowing the visual language of photographs and theatrical performances, filmmaking has only recently experienced with the way our relationship with technology can influence the way we tell stories. While Searching tries to push the boundaries of filmmaking by making the laptop screen a canvas for tense narratives, the limitations of the style impede the serviceable story over and over again. Without making a meaningful comment on the nature of technology—or even in a meta sense, how using that technology as a storytelling tool enhances that story—, the movie’s standout style can’t help but come off as a gimmick. It’s frustrating to see this movie just barely fail to use the medium effectively.