Making maximum use of audience familiarity with the dangers of social media, “Searching” succeeds in punching up a run-of-the-mill Lifetime movie-of-the-week with clever visual gimmickry.
When Margot (Michelle La), the teen daughter of David Kim (John Cho), disappears, the mystery takes a sinister turn. Margot’s social media profiles reveal that David, who has been grieving since the death of his wife, didn’t really know his daughter at all. He calls the police, and the intrepid Detective Vick (Debra Messing) takes charge of the investigation. Frustrated and anxious David dives into Margot’s digital world discovering clues to what might have happened to her.
Exciting and, at times, exasperating as the grainy computer and cell phone camera-like images are often hard on the eyes, “Searching” manages to engross the viewer in the mystery. The entire film is told mainly through the computer screen never quite breaking this visual conceit. As the concluding act relies on security cameras, the film takes on the flavor of the played out found footage genre, although the social media origins help keep it somewhat fresh and consistently entertaining.
Director Aneesh Chaganty makes his feature debut with “Searching.” It’s a really tricky bit of directing and the film is largely constructed in post-production, rather than in camera. He co-writes the script with producer turned writer Sev Ohanian (see “Fruitvale Station”). The screenplay makes a concerted effort to utilize current social media tools, many which are intimately familiar to us. Also created for the film are a couple fantastical social media platforms that don’t completely integrate with the real ones. This will inevitably date the movie quickly, especially as the look and feel of formats upgrade. But given the year 2017 that the film commits to, perhaps, it will not age as badly as other social media set narratives. It’s not as if this is we have to deal with a ridiculous computer like the one infested by the devil in 1981’s “Evilspeak.” The tools used here are, for the most part, grounded.
It is fair to say that while “Searching” borrows the computer screen as its visual scope, much of what we see goes beyond what a normal computer screen would capably represent. Chaganty has to cheat a bit in order to wind up his story in a way that will hold audience attention. This wider shift is a bit jarring. However, that’s okay, although the effect is to never quite sell us on the fact that we are watching an approximation of a computer screen and not an actual one.
Messing and Cho are solid as the police detective and the clueless father. The smeary, grainy images do make it hard to bond with their performances, especially as fine details associated with emotions are smoothed out. It’s hard to grade whether the image quality helps or hurts the acting. Messing’s red eyes and intensity does translate and certain mystery elements are assisted by the limited scope.
Even though the images that make up “Searching” have been clearly digitally manipulated to approximate cell phone and computer source footage, the use of this gimmick is much more effective than the iPhone shot “Unsane” released earlier this year. However, even though “Searching” is given a wide release and should perform well in cinemas, I suspect that it will not spawn a host of imitators and foster a new social media, found footage sub-genre.