Cast: John Cho, Debra Messing, Joseph Lee Director: Aneesh Chaganty
When you change the form of the film just a little bit, you can waltz over the clichés of the film’s genre. The investigative thriller Searching – an astonishingly assured debut by Aneesh Chaganty does precisely this – it offers a unique perspective on what could be a routine sequence of events in a potboiler. But mainly, this is a very exciting film that needs to be seen on the big screen and one that seems like an avenue into what the future of cinema could be.
The premise of Searching is very simple – a single dad’s (John Cho) teenage daughter (Michelle La) goes missing and he finds himself in a race against time to sift through clues to identify her last location in hopes of finding her. A local cop (Debra Messing) is assigned to the case but the leads look slim and the father takes it upon himself to solve the mystery.
Here’s what makes Searching more interesting than every other film with a similar plot – it is presented entirely on computer and phone screens.
It works as a found footage movie but there are a number of ways in which Searching transcends that subgenre. For one, we see the entire plot unfold through windows like Youtube, Gmail, Skype and social media platforms like Facebook. A persistent point of contention in found footage films is quite simply the question of who found the footage and edited it together – there’s no leaping over the excuse of producers making found footage films for their cheap production costs.
Presenting this film in computer and phone screen format lends a layer of believability and the lack of necessity of the editing process as we see the events unfold. It works like a bridge between fiction and a true crime documentary where your disbelief is suspended just enough to let yourself be swept away by the many dramatic moments.
Secondly, the film contains ridiculously accurate representation of the way we use social media and computer devices – and Chaganty and his writer Sev Ohanian find unique ways to weave digital platforms into thrilling plot points.
There are various instances where the film becomes smarter than it has any right to be – like the scene where a somber moment is attached to stereotypically sad violin music, but the shot transitions into a YouTube video of someone playing that music and the protagonist listening to it because he’s in the mood to do so. Attention to detail is the key here as Chaganty finds ways to make us even nostalgic with warm, inviting sounds and visuals of Windows XP and its hilariously terrible user privacy settings that helps solve the case.
Also interesting is the precise injection of backstory to lend the protagonist some gravitas and emotional connect to the audience; there is a sequence which riffs directly from Pixar’s Up to establish everything there is to know about the people in the film – which may not be a very original tactic but it works just well enough to feel for the Cho’s character. The only little niggle to pick is the reliance on overtly dramatic music in the third act to exercise urgency, which is not just unnecessary but undermines the quiet intimacy of the rest of the film.
Searching is of course not the first film to exercise the computer-screen-found-footage plot format – Open Windows and Unfriended tried something similar but weren’t particularly good films. Producer Timur Bekmambetov (who made the amazing Night Watch films) has backed something that works, and surely the process of making Searching has created some sort of a blueprint to make more films like this more easily at a much faster pace. So if this becomes a big enough success who knows what the future holds in store for cinema.