Screens dominate Searching, the feature debut of ex-Google videographer Aneesh Chaganty, just as they do modern life. Whether this is for the best or worst, the film is not entirely certain, being both technophilic and phobic. The result is a sturdy thriller that’s smart visual execution is as enlightening as it is limiting.
Chaganty’s film follows the post-found-footage likes of Unfriended in telling its story entirely through diegetic cameras: webcams, smartphones and CCTV. A splendid opening utilises the gimmick with the elegance and joy of an uplifting software commercial, before stinging with a bite, more than a touch reminiscent of that in Up. Photos, videos and emails unveil the story of a flourishing young family, whose lives are destroyed when mother Pamela (Sara Sohn) falls victim to cancer.
John Cho is excellent here as David Kim, a father who fails to notice the chasm forming in his relationship with daughter Margot (Michelle La) when each struggles to come to terms with their familial loss. When Margot goes missing, David is hit with the horrifying realisation that his daughter’s laptop knows her better than her own father. The role is essentially a single-hander and Cho does well to imbue it with a rewarding depth of necessary emotion, amid a distancing digital environment.
Equally effective in this regard is Chaganty’s handling of the conceit, particularly in the early stages of his film. The inherently static quality of a desktop is subverted by the constant motion of the screens within that space. In one pivotal scene, the sinewy form of a screensaver is used to establish a brilliantly surreal aura, whilst the cluttering of Margot’s desktop with files makes for an arresting, symbolic image. Likewise, Torin Borrowdale’s thrumming soundtrack incorporates the clattering of a keyboard and clicking of a mouse to cleverly heighten scenes of tension.
The limitations of Searching’s dominating aesthetic become clearer as the film passes the halfway mark. Increasingly Chaganty and co-writer Sev Ohanian resort to cheating at their own game by inserting unrealistically revelatory ‘breaking news’ clips and security camera footage that David could never feasibly have had access to. As a character, his fluidity across multiple softwares, websites, applications and social media feels similarly unlikely. For all his convenient computer capabilities, in one scene he asks: ‘What’s a Tumblr?’
Debra Messing is introduced late as the detective assigned to the case but convinces even less. Her sympathies with David – she has a child too – fail to enliven her as an investible individual, whilst her behaviour borders on nonsense. Indeed, the longer the film rolls on, the more contrived its story becomes and the less interesting its style remains. A more restrictive perspective might have gifted a less formulaic experience.
In spite of its failings, Searching delivers nonetheless as a compelling emotional drama. At its heart, Cho provides an exceptional and entirely human core. He’s wasted in Star Trek.