Former Google employee Aneesh Chaganty’s first film “Searching” has an uphill battle, thanks to disposable horror film “Unfriended.” The latest disposable feature film trend moves from iPhone-shot movies, to having everything displayed on a computer screen, webcam, FaceTime or security footage. Essentially, it’s the evolution of the “found footage” concept but Chaganty’s intelligence within the world of social media has allowed him to design a script that works on multiple levels. “Searching” evolves into a well-thought-out suspense thriller that’s ironically timely due to the Molly Tibbits tragedy playing out in real time on national news. “Searching” also explores the more creative and articulate side of this latest movie trend, proving that it can work and the guys using it for throwaway horror flicks were simply lazy and uncreative with the technology.
Following the death of his wife, David Kim (John Cho), has become that overprotective father. Instead of talking about the memory of Margot’s (Michelle La) mother, “she would be proud of you,” he types and then deletes from a text message. He spends enormous amounts of energy and effort to portray normalcy. Margot appears a normal teen in virtually every way, yet after a routine study group she never returns home. David begins texting, calling, FaceTiming, then reaching out to the school, which has her marked absent. His fears grow as he contacts classmates and finally the police. He can’t find her anywhere. What he uncovers in the process is shocking. Detective Vick (Debra Messing) takes the case and works with David covering every corner to locate Margot.
Chaganty’s script explores the modern notion of parents understanding a version of their child they see in the flesh and then uncovering a completely different person online. “I didn’t know her,” David says at one point. The emotional heartbeat of the film comes from Cho who has steadily grown from forgettable comedy roles “Harold & Kumar,” to more prolific performances like last year’s “Columbus.” Cho portrays a father anyone can identify with, which the film heavily relies on. There are, however, elements that stretch plausibility, for instance: Having a database of Margot’s friends from middle school with phone numbers, addresses and comments like “first crush.” What parent saves that type of information for so many years? I’m also not sold on the idea that a detective would be so interactive via text message or FaceTime.
“Searching” effortlessly breaks out of the gimmick genre because the suspense builds to such a heightened level you forget you are watching “a computer screen” movie as it’s been dubbed. Similarly, with Steven Soderbergh’s “Unsane,” “Searching” could just as easily been given the feature film treatment, maintaining the performance, suspense and adding missing cinematic elements. The film’s most problematic issues are sensationalism in the final acts. It abandons the laptop/phone device format for live streaming news reports that come across as anything but authentic. Chaganty has taken this new movie idea to the next level, however I don’t think anyone prefers this structure of film over what’s considered traditionally accepted.
Final Thought — “Searching” successfully expands on the “laptop movie” concept with riveting performances and unbelievable suspense.