How often have you looked back at older films and thought, “if they just had cellphones/smartphones this story wouldn’t even exist”. The beauty about Aneesh Chaganty’s Searching is that it is precisely a story that exists because of such technologies and by those technologies’ capacities to both reveal and obfuscate, we immerse in a riveting dramatic struggle. That struggle is manifold. Firstly how do you make a “missing person procedural” unfold in a compelling and fresh way, how do you make a computer screen cinematic (hats off to cinematographers Baron, Johnson and Merrick [Johnson and Merrick also for Editing].), and how then do you make that resultant material impactful beyond mere premise? Chaganty’s film demonstrates the entwined nature of these creative struggles and forges a determined vision with gravity, heart and relevance.
David Kim (John Cho) is a single father whose 16-year-old daughter (Margot played by Michelle La) goes missing one night after a study group. After a few false assumptions fail to pan out, David files a missing persons report and a local investigation opens, lead by Detective Vick (Debra Messing). In the meantime, void of any substantive leads, David decides to dive into his daughter’s inner world through her laptop in his own investigation, only to discover the depths to which he didn’t truly know his own child (or is led to believe he didn’t) nor the labyrinthine complexity with which we now fragment and present ourselves through social media. As he scours her online identity and the taps into the unprecedented capacity of autonomous searching, Kim confronts a number of his own demons. What I love are the flourishes of humor that arise from Kim’s internet learning curve. I shared in his struggle. There is also humor that arises from unexpected places, despite an overall sense of frustrated powerlessness.
There is something both sad and magical about David’s investigation, when at one point he is forced to use his deceased wife’s (Pamela played by Sara Sohn) laptop as well as his daughter’s in a kind of technology-based family reunion at the darkest moment of his life, but it works brilliantly on a dramatic and emotional level. That is where Chaganty and Ohanian’s script succeeds most. It holds an emotional center, the gravity of which affects all elements of the storytelling and filmmaking. It is through these deftly combined elements that Margot’s dimension as a character is expressed, and in this way, despite her absence anecdotally (though in some ways because of it), her presence and existential landscape is understood.
Searching is indeed a film of our time and place, as well as the direction of our society as a whole, but expressed through circumstances that are visceral and human. The use of technology as a multifaceted storytelling landscape is not simply a gimmick in the way that perhaps “found footage” films function at a single level (albeit sometimes very effectively). Searching however is reflective of how we now move through the world, how we interact, how we posture, how we share ourselves to wildly varied degrees, and it also reflects some of that inherent hazard of “living in public”. The degree to which we are able and unable to fully experience these characters has everything to do with the constraints of the technology through which we observe the story, as well as the emotional barriers that they themselves have erected as a component of their suffering. Some humanity is lost in this conceptual pursuit, but we understand the loss of this tactility in our own lives and our own use of the internet, experiencing things through impressions. It is a natural consequence I can forgive, especially because despite it I was moved and engaged the entire time.
I would be remiss not to mention the manifold significance of Searching opening to a mainstream box office boasting a largely non-white cast and crew, whose director is brown, and whose protagonist is an Asian man not in a martial arts action role. Can we talk about WHY that is delightful and how it is even a noticeable mainstream phenomenon in 2018? There is demonstrative need for diverse representation in mainstream media. That has been true of cinema since the inception of the medium. The damage done by its neglect and absence is clear and virulent in the misshaping of our society’s perceptions of each other, and we vote for that reality at the box office and with our relative silence on the issue. Searching’s diversity is apparent and its apparent-ness is the very signal of the problem. It gets my vote for a lot of reasons: for its success as a dramatic and experimental piece of filmmaking, for passing the Bechdel test (YAS!), and indeed for generating mainstream opportunity to women and POC in the film industry.
Searching opens in theaters today!!