(Image courtesy of Sony Pictures by Sebastian Baron)
Official selection of the 6th Chicago Critics Film Festival and 22nd Fantasia Film Festival
SEARCHING— 5 STARS
The constant connectivity and documentation flowing from our many means of instant communication in our device-driven society become the landscape of virtual threats, entry points, and clues within the dynamic new suspense flick Searching. The entirety of this daring film is presented through the layers of screens across computer desktops, video streams, and a mouse pointer that moves like a scalpel over those pixelated surfaces. The effect is addictively scintillating to create harrowing emotional triggers. Call it a gimmick all you want, but be prepared to be dazzled and proven wrong by the astonishing narrative construction and visual storytelling conduits. True to both the lurid intensity and exceeding excellence of the dictionary definition, Searching is downright sensational and has vaulted to the top of the conversation for the best film of 2018 so far.
Marketed as a borderline horror thriller, any voracious audience member expecting explicit peril will be welcomed by a quaintly pleasing montage that will smack them across the face with stirring realism and genuine feels, an effect not far removed from John Krasinski’s A Quiet Place only without jump scares and violence. Morphing from dialup modem tones, VGA resolution, and the early PC trappings of the Windows XP era to the clean and sleek interfaces of the Google and Apple products of now, Searching accesses and reminisces in the archived media file touchstones of a Korean-American family in San Jose, California. The headlining John Cho and Furious 7’s Sarah Sohn are David and Pam Kim. They provide a charmed life for their bright daughter Margot who grows up before our scrolling transition eyes into the teen played by the debuting Michelle La.
LESSON #1: WE LEAD DIGITAL LIVES NOW — The opening of Searching feel like one of those well-crafting marketing campaigns from big-time tech companies we used to see a decade ago. A sunny light of empowered happiness is presented to play with the emotional boosts possible from technology, its connectivity, and the ability of the featured products to document not only simplify our lives but craft our memories. Those slices of salesmanship are no longer dreams. We’re living it. We each might as well be the Kim family.
Because of that unifying degree of empathy, Searching is a heart attack of a film that preys upon every parent’s fears in this current digital world. One night, Margot disappears and the missing persons’ rabbit hole opens wide to consume David. Played across the layered screens of open applications, iMessage, FaceTime, browser tabs, and video feeds, the digital breadcrumbs unearthed by her father and the diligent lead detective (Debra Messing, life Cho, playing it straight) reveal a very different daughter than the one David thought he knew. Password recovery inside Margot’s laptop reveals a megabyte minefield of unforeseen mysteries involving squirreled-away money and a shady video-streaming social media platform of unknown identities. The ensuing mystery and spectacle becomes an escalating nightmare of click bait, hashtags, news spin, emoticons, and blind thoughts and prayers.
The first-time feature filmmaking team of Aneesh Chaganty and Sev Ohanian have struck on ingenious gold. Shot in a mere 13 days by the commercial and short film specialists, their misdirection writing is whip smart, devoid of cynicism, and strong with believable and captivating scenarios. Furthermore, the unique visual presentation style within simple screen windows is downright revolutionary to be accomplished at this 100% level. The world-building is unimaginably deep to take a limiting setting that would normally feel placid and confined and twisting it with voyeuristic danger, especially when amplified by the ominous and blood-pressure-spiking electronic musical score from fellow short film veteran Torin Borrowdale.
Searching is an editor and designer’s dream as one of the most detail-oriented movies of recent memory. High praise is warranted for co-editors Nicholas D. Johnson and Will Merrick working their tails off. Every background and foreground element you see was created from scratch to the smallest detail to emulate the real programs and stash a bottomless pit of Easter eggs and clues, opening Searching up for outstanding repeat viewing opportunities. The film couldn’t be shaped more clean and precise for both suspense and sentiment.
The human microprocessor of that emotionality is the stalwart John Cho. Following his mature romantic role last year in Columbus and leading an intentional push for casting diversity, Cho continues to outshine his MILF and White Castle horndog youth to telegraph one of the best acting performances this year. On a similarly impressive level as Joaquin Phoenix in Her a few years ago, John is often emoting against nothing but a tiny device camera in his face and sells every furrowed brow of parental guilt and grief. Playing every bit of his 46-year-old age as a father of two himself, the actor swings on a precarious and heartfelt pendulum between driven composure and ruinous unraveling. You are on that shocking and stressful swing with him and feel every gut punch.
LESSON #2: DIGITAL LITERACY HAS BECOME THE NORM — Piggybacking from Lesson #1, Searching is a scalding and topical parable for our times, one with a premise that wider modern audiences can readily understand and buy for suspense. Portraying both the positive and negative capabilities of connected tech, this is a colossal cautionary tale that screams to be a wakeup call for parents and consumers to be keen, aware, and protective of their digital footprints. That’s the high-tech part on the glossy outside. The analog part is next.
LESSON #3: MAKE THE EFFORT TO KNOW YOUR KID — Out of all of the gadgets buzzing and data streaming through Searching, zero technology comprises its true human core. No matter the fault or the cause, “everything is fine” is rarely a true statement when you ask whether or not you really know a child, their friends, and interests. No device is required for straight-up parental love, participation, and involvement. You have to put the screen down, talk, and engage in conversations and quality time to build familial bonds. Such intact trust is the way to have freedom and personal space worth hand-in-hand with the guidance and countermeasures before blame and regret ever become mistakes.
LOGO DESIGNED BY MEENTS ILLUSTRATED (#720)