Though Searching is thrillingly innovative with the way it uses the computer screen as a storytelling device, it cannot claim to be the first. That title goes to the horror film Unfriended (and by association its sequel coming next month). Perhaps no movie gimmick has earned more scoffs than the one Unfriended started. Imagine the grumbles of retrograde purists everywhere: kids these days are addicted to their computers, and now it has infiltrated into our cinemas yadda yadda yadda. While the computer screen format grew thin for producing jump scares, it may have found its niche in Searching as a tool for investigation.
The opening scenes (if you can call it that) play out like the first ten minutes of Up. A now-ancient Windows desktop computer boots up, two profiles appear on screen for David (John Cho) and Pam (Sara Sohn), the mouse moves across the screen to add a new profile. This is for Margot (Michelle La) – their newborn daughter. At the end of this sequence, we learn that Pam has died from lymphoma as the note in the computer’s calendar “mom comes home” is deleted. Without the option of voiceover or traditional live-action visuals, the film finds creative cues like this to tell the audience something we’ve seen in hundreds of movies before. To chronicle the passage of time, for another example, the screen changes from 2000 era Windows to a Mac.
It’s years later and Margot has gone missing. David embarks on a desperate search to find her using the trail of clues left on Margot’s computer. We follow every conversation and discovery as it unfolds on screen through Gmail, Facetime and just about every social media site used today. There are even sites that I didn’t know existed which only makes my just-short-of-20-years-old self feel incredibly out of the loop. The most outdated thing about Searching is that the teens still use Facebook (it recalls to mind the moment from Eighth Grade where a young girl tells her mother that “nobody uses Facebook”).
For a film with a striking lack of people’s faces, there are plenty of moments dedicated to developing character. Writer-director Aneesh Chaganty understands, not just what people do on the internet, but how people use it. The sentences we type, choose not to send and delete tells us as much about a person as what they do say. It makes us all the more aware of how artificial our online identities can be – how perfectly crafted every syllable is that we send out for everyone to see. That isn’t to say that John Cho doesn’t deliver a knockout performance. The antithesis of his subdued career-best performance in Columbus, Cho is loud and dramatic. David’s intense desperation is laid bare on Cho’s expressive face in the minutes that we do get to see him.
It’s not only the unique format that keeps you engaged, as the mystery that unfolds is an intriguing one with twists that fully take advantage of the tools at its disposal. Was Margot kidnapped or did she run away? Does David truly know his daughter? The internet molds to fit into what you desire – it’s a place to be yourself, to keep secrets, to lie – and Searching understands everything the internet can be.
Teenagers are secretive little shits with their parents. The bedroom door has to stay shut or else any crack in the wall threatens to destroy everything sacred. Privacy is as important to teens as good wi-fi. That idea is exemplified to great effect in Searching – with passwords, finstas, and secret accounts – there are a million places to hide, and teens are more slippery than ever. Our public lives are private and our private lives are public. It seems like cinema is finally catching up to the current social media landscape.