Like, share, post, delete,
Play, search, hide, repeat—
On the screen, our lives connect,
While off the screen, they show neglect,
Not knowing how we each affect
Each other in ways indirect.
Liars, lovers, fathers, friends
Dwell online, but each depends
On flesh and blood that can’t suppress
The need to fill its loneliness.
MPAA rating: PG-13
Hollywood is all too often invaded by gimmicks. The found-footage style, the zombie craze, the Alien-style plotline (come to think of it, most of them are horror gimmicks) – there’s more than enough copycats to go around, but there’s always that one that did it best and usually first, like Alien or Night of the Living Dead. Using only a computer screen for a movie may have been done before, as in the Unfriended films, but it’s hard to imagine it will ever be done better than in last year’s Searching.
John Cho plays David Kim, a California father whose daughter goes missing, sending him on a frantic search through her online life and uncovering just how little he knew about her. The computer screen “gimmick” is at its best in the opening scenes, which play out in a way reminiscent of the beginning of Up yet exemplify how the computer has become a partner and observer to so many aspects of our lives. I could easily see this beginning as a standalone short film, as it was originally intended, but instead, it simply sets the stage and grounds the story in characters we care about from the start.
My VC was a little tired of the gimmick by the end, but I admire the variety of methods the filmmakers employed to restrict the story to a computer screen while not letting it become dull or overly repetitive. It often depends on David not closing his FaceTime camera window even after a phone call ends, but the story also unfolds through news footage, live recordings, home videos, file searches, and real-time texting. (I couldn’t help but wonder if the texting was at all inspired by the anime Durarara, which also used texts to depict long-distance conversations.) The way it does much of this without spoken words is like a new kind of silent film and is executed brilliantly to suggest emotions we aren’t actually seeing on someone’s face.
Beyond existing for itself, the innovation serves the mystery, a great one full of twists and turns that may not be prediction-proof but offer no shortage of red herrings to keep you guessing. And even once you know the film’s secrets, there’s still more to appreciate; one of the DVD’s bonus features revealed the level of extreme detail that went into creating every web page from scratch, many of which are full of in-jokes, foreshadowing, side plots, and M. Night Shyamalan references. (Even when David’s daughter and an anonymous friend share their favorite Pokémon with each other, those in the know will recognize deeper meaning behind their choices.)
Considering how profitable Searching became, earning back several dozen times its limited budget, there’s no doubt that other films will aspire to emulate its style, but I feel that Searching might be cinematic lightning in a way. I doubt it will hit twice, with any unoriginal copycats likely to overstay their welcome. It’s an outstanding debut from director and former Google employee Aneesh Chaganty, one that uses its gimmick in the best way possible.
© 2018 S.G. Liput
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