SEARCHING Review

Be warned: the opening moments of co-writer and director Aneesh Chaganty's Searching is comparable to the opening of Disney and Pixar's UP and if you haven't seen UP you should probably do that, but if you have you'll understand the monumental comparison this is and what it undoubtedly implies in terms of the powerful nature this movie sets itself up to deliver right out of the gate. In this opening montage Chaganty along with co-writer Sev Ohanian as well as their editors, Nick Johnson and Will Merrick, swiftly establish who our characters are and where they've come from so that the viewer is keenly aware of the point each character is at in their lives as well as providing an equal balance of clues and intrigue as to what headspace these characters might be wading through as the film then delves into the current predicament the movie will chronicle. Searching is ultimately about relationships, the toll that grief, sorrow, and shame can take on certain dynamics as well as how different people deal with and react to such emotions. Moreover, Searching filters this exploration of dealing in such emotions through the guise of the ever-evolving technology of our modern world; commenting on the highs and lows of documenting our every move. Naturally, it's nice to be able to capture so much of our everyday lives and share achievements and moments with those we both count as friends and those we'd just kind of like to show-off in front of, but there's also that drawback of constantly having something to post or log in the simple fact that some memories are best forgotten while others we may eventually prefer to not be reminded of. Of course, Facebook hardly lets one forget anything these days and thus is the genius of Chaganty's film as it places the audience firmly within the perspective of John Cho's David Kim not through who he is or the circumstances of his life necessarily, but through how he conducts himself online and how his documentation of life events is likely akin to any given audience members. In the aforementioned opening montage, we see David go through the joys of fatherhood, the love of a genuine marriage, and the heartbreak of a tragic loss all through the (Microsoft) window(s) frame of social media, Skype, and of other means of chronicling our day to day integrate themselves as such painting a more and more fully realized picture by the time we're up to present day. This technique is efficient in establishing a set of characters and circumstances for which we become invested, that we care about, that we're curious about, and ultimately somewhat concerned about even before the main narrative kicks in all due solely to this opening montage that hooks us line and sinker. In short, it's a prime example of expert craftsmanship.

David Kim (John Cho) has to decipher his daughter's online activity to try and figure out what might have happened to her.
© 2018 Sony Pictures Entertainment
It should also be noted that this is Chaganty's first feature film to have directed after a series of shorts. This is stated up front due to the fact Searching is largely a work of exceptional craft to the point one would imagine the individual pulling the strings would have some experience doing so making the fact the film is such an accomplishment of journey over destination and more importantly, the "how" of that journey, all the more impressive. After establishing the ground rules in that rule-breaking and much discussed opening montage though, Chaganty delves immediately into the current dynamic between David and his 16-year-old daughter, Margot (Michelle La). It is immediately apparent that the father/daughter relationship has become somewhat strained in the wake of David's wife and Margot's mom having passed away as David can't seem to handle any memory or mention of his late wife while where Margot falls in terms of mentality is mostly left up for question in the first act. We see what is almost too generic of an interaction between dad and daughter that deals in David reminding Margot to take out the trash and Margot being short with her father about being sorry, about likely having bombed a final, and about being in a study group at a friend's house that is likely to go late. It's intentionally generic though as David and Margot are clearly too afraid to engage with one another beyond any surface-level conversations. Little does David know that beyond this brief interaction on this random Thursday evening he won't be able to contact or speak with his daughter again despite Margot attempting two audio and one FaceTime call in the middle of the night. Now, there is some flaw in the logic that David would go to sleep without first confirming his 16-year-old daughter is home safe and in bed, but David is walking that thin line in trying to be the parent he knows Margot needs while giving her the space she desires. Still, I had something of a hard time swallowing this leap as the father of a 3-year-old little girl myself, but one of the cases in point in Searching is how quick commentators are to judge and I certainly don't want to act like I understand what it would be like to be in David's shoes. I don't want to. Needless to say, Margot goes missing and a local investigation is opened with Detective Vick (Debra Messing), a well-renowned and respected part of the community, taking lead on the case. But as Vick is unable to turn up a single lead that feels credible to David and who he believes his Margot was David decides to search the one place where all of today's secrets are kept: his daughter's laptop.

In a film full of inventiveness and refreshing approaches to what might otherwise be rote procedural tropes what is maybe the most stunning aspect is Cho's performance. In essence, it is a one-man show. It's rather incredible Cho is even able to convey as much as he's required to due to the fact much of the time we see him it is through the same lens in which we would see someone when talking on FaceTime i.e. in extreme, often unflattering close-ups. This is made even more incredible by the fact that his character is just as influenced by the actions we see him taking on his desktop. We are watching this man's brain deduce context clues and put things together that result in the unfolding of his thought process via where he takes the mouse on the desktop that fills the movie screen. It's incredibly effective as we, the viewer, are compounding familiar landscapes with this guy, this widower, who we already feel a great amount of sympathy for. We're initially unaware how long it's been since the loss of David's wife, Pamela (Sara Sohn), and so this makes it difficult to gauge exactly where David might be in the grieving process with the present dynamic between him and Margot only shedding a limited amount of light on this. The detail paid to how David exchanges texts and what he wants to say versus what he actually ends up sending down to the inclusion of initially going with an exclamation point only to trade it for a calmer-seeming period is as constructive to outlining Cho's character as Cho's living and breathing performance is, but the trick is that these actions and temperaments defined by David's online actions have to match with what we see presented in Cho's performance. That Cho, who a certain generation will know from a series of stoner comedies and another will remember as part of the re-booted Star Trek ensemble, is able to indeed match his performance pitch to this separate dimension of his character that he more or less has no influence over is rather spectacular. It kind of defines the guy as a force to be reckoned with, honestly. Cho has to convey this disposition of a guy who otherwise has his stuff together, but is experiencing whirlwind stages of confusion, of coming to terms with the fact Margot may not be who he thought she was, and going from confused to worried to anxious to pure panic and shock all in the breadth of single scenes and sometimes even single shots. It's all the more critical that this gamut of emotions Cho has to go through lands effectively due to the movie largely being told from his perspective and not only being told through David's perspective, but being experienced through his single perspective as well. We are there with him when certain revelations come to light; there is no seeing a reaction because the audience is made to feel as if this is an interaction. That is, until it isn't, for which the movie then loses some of its steam as a result.

Detective Vick (Debra Messing) keeps David back after his daughter's car is found submerged in water.
© 2018 Sony Pictures Entertainment
Ultimately, what Searching presents is a gimmick through which to tell a standard procedural, but gimmick is kind of a dirty word as, for the entirety of the first act and the majority of the middle section of the film, what Searching is doing never feels contrived solely to attract attention. Rather, as it is initially presented Searching feels like the logical next step: a movie for a modern audience as what we see on the big screen is much of what we see on our own screens every day. This kind of relatability, of familiarity adds a layer of tension that can't be anticipated, but it is when Chaganty and Ohanian are forced to shift the gimmick to match the scope of their story so that it remains competent is when it becomes less of a personal experience and more of a spectator sport as much of how they adapt to this change in scope is by communicating developments through local news anchors. This leads to one of the few drawbacks of the gimmick at play as the film does eventually reach this point where, to tell the whole of the story, Chaganty can't solely stay on David's desktop and only allow the audience to be privy to the conversations he's having or the investigating he's doing. In doing this and in showing the local news coverage the script also begins to get a little more loose with utilizing sites that are no doubt real or have counterparts in the real world that function in the same way, but that in the context of the film feel more shoe-horned in for plot functionality than they do the likes of Instagram, Tumblr, and YouCast which all feel inherent to the 16-year-old world Margot exists within. That these elements are introduced into the plot solely for the reasons the filmmaker needed an avenue on which to prop up his gimmick and reach the desired conclusion doesn't destroy the dramatic weight of the conclusion, but it does diminish a journey that has felt rather special up until that point. That also isn't to say the conclusion isn't thrilling or nail-biting, because it does satisfy and feel plausible even if one can feel the narrative getting away from Chaganty and Ohanian as the resolution comes quickly and in a fashion that suggests it might not hold up as tightly as need be on repeat viewings. Again this is all in contrast to the first half of the film where Chaganty is able to balance everything on a computer screen that typically feels hectic and hurried to somehow leveraging it in a way that Searching has this tempered pacing that in turn contradicts the presumption the movie will feel the same way it does to navigate a computer or to be a parent which is by and large stressful. The key to the gimmick or technique though, is in how it conveys everything that builds and unfolds in a way that is accurate, honest, and scary-which is why it's more successful than not.