In Pacho Velez’s new documentary, Searchers (formally The Browsers), a rotation of about 75 New Yorkers—including the director himself—are interviewed, examined, and observed as they use a swath of online dating apps in real-time. Some are looking for love, others are looking to fill the time, but the common thread among all of these various “searchers” of different ages, ethnicity, and sexual orientations is their willingness to swipe right. Eventually.
The film begins by focusing more on setting up the profile, while the latter half reveals the aftermath of some of these encounters. Throughout, the documentary is intercut with lifestyle vignettes depicting current New York couples posing for photos and enjoying the bliss many of our would-be lovers aspire to achieve. It’s a Rorschach test of sorts, presented as either an ideal to some viewers, or painfully shallow to others more cynical about the dating process. What is it all for, the film implicitly asks, if the end result is a staged, performative exercise as artificial as our modern hookup culture? This is just one possible interpretation, anyway.
The director himself seems to be right in the middle of these perspectives. Being a bachelor in his early 40s, we get to see him set up a profile and even discuss some of his prospects with his own mother. It’s engaging and certainly risky for a director to insert himself into something so personal, but it mostly works because just about anyone watching Searchers can relate to the plight of these “coastal elites,” ironically enough. Even if they’ve never opened a dating app in their life.
Yet Searchers is still specifically useful in depicting some of the absurdities and ironic bureaucracy of using dating apps to connect with other human beings. It’s absolutely cringe-worthy to see real people treating other real people like glorified products, evaluating their entire essence while going off of the most superficial information and assumptions at hand. These are topics writers and filmmakers have been pointing out for years, of course, how endlessly shuffling through surface-level “resumes” as one New Yorker puts it (and goes further to call the process a “job”) makes the entire undertaking feel like a sadistic game of chance. And we all know the House always wins.
Searchers, for this reason, doesn’t say anything particularly new about online dating, and it even avoids some potentially fresh territory by mostly ignoring the implications of how COVID-19 has shifted and in some ways hindered the use of dating apps for many who don’t want to risk their health right now. The documentary appears to have been filmed almost entirely during the pandemic, as we see many people wearing masks and an occasional New Yorker will mention it only to revel in how they can enjoy their cozy apartment for the first time. Aside from these sparse references, Searchers aims to be a little more evergreen in its approach, likely editing out most of the comments and concerns many of these people have about dating strangers in a COVID-filled world.
Fortunately, the film manages to present its predictable gripes about dating apps in some unconventional ways. There’s something almost “laboratory” about seeing only the expressions of people as they evaluate their prospects, which are shone only as transparent, unreadable screens in the backdrop. It would have been so easy for Velez to let us see a blurred-faces split-screen of what the New Yorkers see, but the choice to leave that up to our imaginations is actually brilliant. It doesn’t matter what these photos look like, the point is how the searchers see them. The film forces us to dwell on the reaction, which is what other documentaries and think pieces about the rise of online dating have mostly missed until now.
Searchers premiered Jan. 30, 2021 at the Sundance Film Festival. For more Sundance 2021 coverage, click here.