Review | Searching | 2018

Searching isn't the first movie to take place entirely on a computer screen (the 2014 horror film Unfriended has that dubious title), but it's easily the best film to have done so.

The film follows the frantic efforts of a father to track down his missing daughter using every online resource at his disposal. In the wake of his wife's tragic death, David Kim (John Cho) has felt a certain distance between himself and his daughter, Margot (Michelle La), but once she goes missing and he starts digging into her digital life, he begins to realize just how much they had drifted apart.

Margot's social media is filled with depressed cries for help, secret friendships, and outright lies, leading David to question whether he knew his daughter at all. Was Margot kidnapped, was she murdered, or was she a party to something sinister? As he and a sympathetic Detective Vick (Debra Messing) get deeper into the mystery, it soon becomes clear that this case is far more complex than he could have ever imagined.

Searching, much like this year's Bo Burnham's wonderful Eighth Grade, memorably explores the rich online life lead by teenagers, and it does so by fulling immersing us in their online world. The film takes place entirely on a computer screen - any dialogue is conveyed through iMessage, Facetime, or news clips on YouTube, cleverly assembling the story through disparate digital elements to bring together pieces of a fractured whole. We find clues on video livestreams and Instagram posts, and watch David through his webcam has he searches for files on his computer that may provide answers to Margot's whereabouts. It's engaging and suspenseful where Unfriended felt cheap and gimmicky, using its digital milieu as a means to look deeper into the human ability to create alternate personalities online, or to reveal their real ones to an unseen audience that is always watching and listening.

In my review of Unfriended, I compared the experience to watching someone else play video games over their shoulder. One never feels like that while watching Searching. The audience is fully immersed in this experience, invited to participate with David as both our avatar and our guide. We are both audience and participant, active and a passive metaphor for Margot's anonymous audience. Do we pay attention to what is clearly a cry for help? Do we check on our friends who withdraw from real life into an online escape?

Searching both implicates us and engages us in her father's search, and the results are wholly engrossing and even moving. It takes the digital world where so much of us spend so much of our daily lives and brings it to to cinematic in unexpected and thrilling ways. It's one of the year's most satisfying surprises; at a time when true-crime TV shows and podcasts are surging in popularity, Searching feels like an old-fashioned whodunit in a thoroughly modern setting, charting a bold new cinematic course into the digital world with a keen sense of tension and empathy. Who knew a computer screen could make for such enthralling viewing?

GRADE - ★★★ (out of four)

SEARCHING | Directed by Aneesh Chaganty | Stars John Cho, Debra Messing, Michelle La, Sara Sohn | Rated PG-13 for thematic content, some drug and sexual references, and for language | Now playing in theaters nationwide.


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