Modern technology is a blessing and an omnipresent nightmare. Often, it depends on how you view it and, more importantly, how you use it. The Internet is rarely your friend, but it can be your ally — whether it’s searching for the right word to use or to find the best restaurants in your local area, to name only a select few examples. But it’s safe to say that the Internet is something that’s incorporated into all of our lives at this point in time — whether we like it or not. We’re all connected to the Internet right now.
Yet, beyond the occasional Unfriended film — including this summer’s sinister sequel, Unfriended: Dark Web — the cinema has rarely reflected our connection to the web. In some ways, that’s understandable. Typing on a computer is not a particularly cinematic activity, especially when viewed from a second-person perspective. And it’s hard for filmmakers to communicate the rapid-fire ways in which our minds and fingers work on the web in a way that’s authentic, engrossing and, most importantly, compelling. Filmmakers are still trying to figure out how to communicate texting in movies; we still have a ways to go before we can really communicate our Internet-fueled 21st century in a truly enriching and sincere manner. But Searching makes good strides to change that.
Director Aneesh Chaganty, in his feature-length film debut, produces a tense, intimate, darkly investing but ultimately humane, firsthand cinematic glimpse at our relationship with technology and the people who use it — one that isn’t afraid to show both the light and dark side of the Internet in somewhat equal measures. The result is a style-pushing new movie that literally invites you inside the computer of David Kim (a spectacular John Cho), as well as the computer of his teenage daughter, Margot (Michelle La), who goes missing one weekend after a study session with her friends. David is frantic and confounded, trying in every which way to search (both on the computer in front of him and the world outside of it that eludes him) for clues of his daughter’s disappearance.
From only the perspective of his computer screen that includes video monitored calls, FaceTime chats, text messages, fruitful (and unfruitful) internet searches and copious visits to several social media platforms — including Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr and other popular sites that surprisingly (and thankfully) allowed their brands to be used (there is no need to go on sites like “Bloogle” or, you know, Bing, for instance) — we get a chance to see a modern-day thriller in a way we’re not often accustomed to, yet we can relate to unquestionably, thanks to the world we live in today. That adds to the film’s realism and deep immersion, something that is definitely beneficial when the story itself jumps into some, shall we say, less-than-believable plot choices as it evolves.
The screenplay, written by Chaganty alongside Sev Ohanian, is a heartfelt, passionate and character-focused piece of storytelling which values the humans as well as the tech. That’s ultimately what makes Searching such a good-natured and engaging success; life spent on the web can be an exhausting, infuriating, soul-sucking experience, but thankfully, Searching has humor, insight, wit and a nice bit of bittersweet charm —despite the darkness that often comes out through the twisted narrative that’s spun. That goes a long way, in addition to the authenticity of the sites we see on screen (which, admittedly, will likely go sour within the next few years, which is wise that Chaganty is focused on the characters in addition to the technology they use in the film). But one thing that keeps Searching from reaching the full depths of authenticity is the story, which falls into a trap of trying to top itself in twists, to the point where the twists will get more and more far-fetched as the story goes along, straining the firm believability that’s rather crucial to the overall success of Chaganty’s first feature film.
While Searching can be a bit corny in its sentimentality, notably towards the beginning, the middle is where the movie comes to life. As we bounce from screen to screen, search to search, we get more invested in the investigation that David Kim concocts. By keeping us guessing as the protagonist is left looking for clues on his daughter’s laptop, we begin to see what could very well be the new future of cinema; the advancement of storytelling where we bounce into a character’s personal life through the things they often try to keep to themselves, even when someone can always be watching. It’s a really intriguing idea, and it’s one that Searching, at its best, is really interested in too. And that’s what makes the disappointment of its overworked ending, which favors the kind of twists found in airplane reads than something you can actually believe is true, such a bitter disappointment. For all the hard-work the movie did to make us believe in the reality of the characters based on our reality, it ultimately turns to pure fiction at the exact wrong time.
That said, when Searching is actually, you know, in the process of searching, trying to find the best way to tell its modern story in a way that we can all relate to, that’s when the film succeeds beautifully. Even if the story doesn’t reach its full heights, it promises to tell the type of stories that we’ll grow accustomed to seeing as technology advances. But that advancing technology will likely make us see how far-fetched this narrative can truly be, which might result in the film getting weaker upon future viewings. Nevertheless, right here and right now, Searching is a compelling, relevant movie worth seeking out.