It’s hard to know where to begin when describing the sheer brilliance of Searching. For one, it handles a really interesting gimmick of having the entire film shot on smartphones and computer webcams. Not only that, but the gimmick never overshadows the emotional storyline which deals with a father who will go to great lengths to save his missing daughter. The film’s ability to let the story and technical aesthetics go hand in hand smoothly is thanks in large part to writer/director Aneesh Chaganty. Along with leading man John Cho and co-writer Sev Ohanian, he has easily created one of the most innovative film watching experiences of the year if not the most innovative.
When Searching first opens, it feels like the opening sequence of the movie Up. We see past videos of the main family in chronological order from when the child starts school to when the mother, Pamela, dies of cancer. The musical score by Torin Borrowdale adds to the emotional effect by having a light, happy sound to signify that they seem like a happy family before they’re hit with a sudden tragedy.
Since Pamela’s death, her widowed husband David (Cho) and their daughter Margot (Michelle La) have grown distant. As a result, when Margot goes missing, it becomes curious as to whether or not their distance has played a part in her disappearance. Did Margot run away? Is David involved in her disappearance? Has she been kidnapped?
It gets difficult to answer all those questions up until the film’s shocking twist. Not to mention, adding to the ambiguity is John Cho’s performance. While Cho does present David as the kind family man he appears to be in the opening videos, he still makes you wonder whether he truly had a part in Margot’s disappearance. David is someone who’s loving and protective yet you still question whether or not he’s a little too protective. Whether we see him far away from a camera or hear his voice, Cho is able to blur the line between protagonist and possible perpetrator. After the one-two punch of Columbus and Searching, here’s hoping studios finally realize his capabilities as a leading man.
Next are those that may end up being the film’s unsung heroes: The editors. The film may take place on a computer screen but Nick Johnson and Will Merrick still have the task of knowing when to let the camera zoom in and out. Also, they were able to know when to let the camera cut away which is tricky because the film involves a lot of cutting. For example, there’s a scene of David Facetiming all of Margot’s classmates and after he starts talking with one, it’ll immediately cut to him talking to another as a way to demonstrate David’s tension-filled pursuit.
The atmospheric musical score does an amazing job at creating tension as well. The score often feels like its own character because it starts off very harmonious when we first meet the main family but when the film turns into a suspense thriller, it becomes more ominous. In fact, it makes typing a message on Messenger seem scary.
Sometimes, you can never figure out what message response David is going to get or what kind of secrets about Margot he will find as he goes deeper into this mystery. It may seem like a typical “missing person” story but it’s also about the secrets we tend to hide and also, how our social media personas tend to be different from how we are in person. Lastly, once Margot’s disappearance becomes publicized, it becomes the subject of Twitter hashtags, showing how social media tries to act as judge and jury on certain crimes.
As previously mentioned, it seems like a typical “missing person” movie but Aneesh Chaganty makes it deceptively simple. What appears to be a story about a father searching for his child is one that has layers as hidden as the secrets our main character uncovers. Searching is both an immersive and ingenious experience and because it is Aneesh Chaganty’s directorial debut, one could only hope that he’s got even more creative ideas on the horizon.