Watch out, Batman.
If you ever needed a reason why you shouldn’t password to protect your computer (even though, who are we kidding, you should totally password protect your computer), look no farther than Searching.
Searching is a new movie from first-time feature-length director Aneesh Chaganty that’s part of a genre being labeled as ‘Screenlife.’
Screenlife is, essentially, an entire feature-length film that takes place on a computer screen. That can include several different formats — FaceTime, news footage or screen captures — as it gives the director’s a chance to be creative in those regards, but that’s the basic idea.
We’ve seen this genre tackled a few times before Searching, namely through the Unfriended movies which started back in 2014.
Timur Bekmambetov was a producer on both Unfriended and now Searching, as he’s really been one of the pioneers of this form of story-telling. Bekmambetov is also responsible for directing Wanted in 2008, that god-awful Ben-Hurremake in 2016 and the one movie that I liked but everyone else HATED, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter in 2012. Six years later and I honestly believe that film completely holds up in an unironic way.
Searching seems Bekmambetov leave that goofy, over-the-top kind of storytelling he’s been mainly dabbling in, as this is a much more grounded and personal film — at least, to some degree.
David (John Cho) and Margot Kim (Michelle La) haven’t had the easiest of lives. David’s wife/Margot’s mother, Pam (Sara Sohn), was diagnosed with lymphoma when Margot was only starting middle school, then passing away just a year or so later.
Through it all, David and Margot have managed to stay pretty close. At least, as far as David is concerned. A teenage daughter is only going to communicate with her father so much, but he believes that the two seem to have a pretty steady and solid relationship.
At least, that’s what he did believe. When Margot goes missing and he starts to uncover a bunch of secrets about her that he would never have guessed, well, that’s when things start to change.
At first, David figures that his daughter probably just forgot to tell him that she had piano practice or was studying at a friend’s house. She’ll be back within a couple hours, he tells himself.
She’s not back in a couple hours. She’s not back later that night. And when he wakes up the next morning, she’s not back then.
David does what any reasonable person would do, and calls the police. Detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing) gets assigned to the case, as she’s just as eager to bring Margot home as David is. While she’ll handle all the groundwork and primary investigation, she tells David that he can help by giving her as much information about Margot as he possibly can.
That’s when the secrets start coming out, one-by-one. After talking to a number of people that David believed to be Margot’s friends, he soon realizes he doesn’t know the first thing about his daughter’s life. She doesn’t really talk to anyone at school, she quit piano lessons over six months ago and has been mysteriously taking out money and driving around town ever since.
That leads David to ask the one question that’s possibly scarier than any other: who, really, was Margot?
I’m going to start with the positive aspects of Searching, because I eventually have something to say that I doubt will be all too popular.
From the get-go, this movie had me. Searching opens with this beautifully constructed montage that begins when Margot was a little girl, instantly letting the audience fall in love with this family while simultaneously breaking our hearts at the same time in a way that gave me Up PTSD.
From there, as we begin to get to know the characters and the mystery begins to unfold, I was still on board. Searching moves at a nice pace where we aren’t rushing through things too quickly but also aren’t wasting all kinds of time with a bunch of boring details that have nothing to do with the story — just about everything that’s given to us here matters, in some way or another.
Part of the reason this all flows so smoothly, I think, is because of the cast. It blows my mind that John Cho hasn’t become an A-list actor in Hollywood at this point, because I believe the man to be brilliant. Hopefully, Searching will help him get some more attention because studios really should be fighting to sign Cho on to whatever tentpole projects they have cooking up too.
I liked Michelle La in this a lot, too. You wouldn’t think she’d have a lot to do in the movie, given that, you know, she’s missing the whole time, but there are a fair amount of scenes when Davis is reviewing old footage and La’s acting talents come into play. She’s really quite good, as she’s able to go toe-to-toe with Cho in just about every scene.
Then we get to the midpoint of the movie.
I hate being this guy. Really, truly, I HATE being this guy. Nine times out of ten, I’ll never see a twist coming unless it’s really, really obvious. That’s the way I like it, too — movies are a lot more fun when you just buckle in for the ride and aren’t constantly trying to guess what happens next.
That being said, I figured out the twist right around the half-way point of the movie, and the rest of Searching was a bit of a let-down from that point on.
To clarify, I didn’t figure out every single aspect of this movie. There were still a bunch of things I couldn’t tie together until they were actually revealed, so it wasn’t like I was sitting there, bored out of my mind the whole time, waiting for the film to catch up with me.
Yet, once you figure it out, it loses a lot of steam. And the thing is, it really isn’t that hard to guess, if you know what you’re looking for. It’s not like I was sitting there, trying to beat the movie to the punch. I’m just aware of how pacing in Hollywood films goes — if the main character thinks they know who did it during the second act, chances are that it’s a red herring and there’s some other clue that’s hiding right in plain sight.
As for the Screenlife aspect of Searching, I liked it, for the most part. It’s pretty cool that technology has come this far to the point where they can actually pull something like this off, and it makes me want to see other genres try and tackle Screenlife. They also use certain elements of Screenlife to make some relevant social commentary about how we present ourselves online in social media, which I thought was handled really well.
On the other hand, there were a few moments when I found myself wishing we could cut to standard footage, just for a second. The movie will be ramping up on the intensity, with David figuring out some clue and then running out of the house to make some sort of huge discovery, only for the screen to cut to news footage explaining what that discovery is. I get that inserting real footage would be completely jarring in these moments, but I also can’t deny that the blatant switch of ‘John Cho closing in on possibly dangerous things’ to ‘anchorman reading off a teleprompter’ sucks all the intensity out, right then and there.
I know there are going to be a lot of people who defend and love Searching, and that’s great. Overall, I think it’s a good movie, and it’s super cool that it features a primarily Asian cast, like Crazy Rich Asians does. That’s huge, actually, because while Crazy Rich Asians really wanted to draw attention to the cultural aspect of it all, Searching just feels like a natural family that could have been any race. Both should be celebrated for different reasons, but the fact that we have both these movies in theaters now is a gigantic progressive step forward.
Watch the trailer for Searching here and then let us know, in the comments below, what you thought about the movie!
'Searching' review: I am the world's greatest detective7