Welcome to Cheat Sheet, our brief breakdown-style reviews of festival films, VR previews, and other special event releases. This review was originally posted after the film’s premiere at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, where it played under the title Search. It has been updated for the film’s wide theatrical release.
In 2015, the movie Unfriended landed in theaters, telling a conventional supernatural revenge story with an unconventional conceit: the entire film took place on the screen of one character’s laptop. That approach really shouldn’t have worked, but Unfriended was nevertheless a creepy, unsettling, low-budget success. When I spoke with producer Timur Bekmambetov at the time, he envisioned “screen movies” as an entire genre.
The filmmaker is taking his next big swing at the format with Searching, starring Star Trek’s John Cho and Will & Grace’s Debra Messing. It’s the story of a father who frantically tries to find his daughter when she goes missing — only this time, the film doesn’t just take place on a single laptop. It takes place on the screens of multiple computers, with an iPhone thrown into the mix for good measure. Once again, this is an idea that shouldn’t work. But Searching is a taut, surprisingly emotional ride. It doesn’t entirely stick the landing, but it’s proof the screen-movie concept isn’t just a one-off fluke.
What’s the genre?
Bekmambetov might have described it as “a screen movie” a couple of years ago, but now, Searching can just be considered a straight-up thriller.
What’s it about?
David Kim (Cho) is recently widowed, and he’s been having a hard time connecting with his teenage daughter Margot (Michelle La). One morning, David wakes up to find he’s missed several late-night FaceTime calls from Margot. As the day unfolds, he discovers she’s not at school, and never even came home the night before. Detective Rosemary Vick (Messing) is assigned to the case, and with her help, David begins digging through his daughter’s computer, her search history, and the live-streaming services he never knew she used. They initially suspect she might have simply run away, but as the evidence piles up, it seems likely that something sinister has happened to Margot.
What’s it really about?
Director Aneesh Chaganty, who co-wrote the script with producer Sev Ohanian, has a couple of themes on his mind with Searching. Writ large, it’s a movie about the way we deal with grief. David shut down emotionally in response to his wife's death, compartmentalizing his memories to the point of forgetting her birthday, and hiding any videos that might spark painful memories from his computer’s search results. While he thinks Margot has been doing okay, as he investigates, he slowly realizes she has been struggling more than he ever realized.
Searching also illustrates how we sometimes use online outlets and social networks to express feelings that would perhaps be better discussed in real life. Margot is comfortable talking about her mom to anonymous strangers on a video chat, but doesn’t want to bring up the issue with her own father, which pushes them further and further apart.
Is it good?
Searching is shockingly effective, not just in creating a sense of constant, palpable tension, but also in the way it pulls off authentic, effective emotional beats. The first five minutes of the film tell the entire backstory of the Kim family, opening with the mom’s computer (running Windows XP) as the family starts documenting Margot’s young life. Through video clips, glimpses of emails, and calendar schedules, we learn that in the ensuing years, Margot’s mother got cancer, fought it into remission, suffered a relapse, and finally succumbed just as Margot was about to start high school. It’s legitimately affecting. (Think the opening prologue of Pixar’s Up, only told through a computer screen.) By the time Searching catches up with the present, and the iMac the family uses at home, the movie has set up an emotional foundation that propels the rest of the film.
As a filmmaker, Chaganty knows a few things about merging technology with filmmaking. He shot an early Google Glass commercial called “Seeds,” and was responsible for some of the snarky ads for Google Photos. But here, he moves beyond those early experiments, and what was accomplished in previous computer screen projects like Unfriended or the Modern Family episode “Connection Lost.” Searching’s rhythm and pacing stand out, from the way the camera punches in and moves around computer screens to the way it creatively adds new angles to the mix, while still adhering to its basic conceit. More often than not, the fact that we’re watching an ersatz computer screen falls away completely, leaving only the drama of David’s search. It feels impressively cinematic, which is no small feat, given the stylistic limitations. Cho also delivers a strong performance, capturing the denial, grief, and anger David experiences as the situation with his daughter becomes increasingly more dire.
The film does have its flaws. Messing’s performance seems out of sync with the rest of the actors at times, as if she’s playing scenes from a much more melodramatic TV show. (The script does give her character some of the clunkiest lines, so there’s only so much she can do.) And while Searching has several moments where it feels like things are wrapping up in a truly unexpected, yet emotionally satisfying way, the film unfortunately doesn’t know when to call it quits. It finally comes to a conclusion with an extended coda that really tests the audience’s suspension of disbelief, and while the movie ultimately delivers a final moment that some audiences will definitely be craving, the way it gets there is easily the weakest part of the film.
What should it be rated?
Searching through Facebook, creating Google Docs, and making FaceTime calls is pretty family-friendly. Let’s call this a PG, given the general subject matter.
How can I actually watch it?
After the world premiere screening at Sundance, Sony picked up the movie for a reported $5 million, and brought it to theaters for a wide release. It’s out on August 24th.