Searching review John ChoYear: 2018
Director(s): Aneesh Chaganty
Writer(s): Aneesh Chaganty, Sev Ohanian
Region of Origin: USA
Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1
Rating: PG-13
Digital, Color, 102 mins

Synopsis: After his 16-year-old daughter goes missing, a desperate father breaks into her laptop to look for clues to find her. (Source)

Searching is one of the first of a handful of “screen life” films. These are films told exclusively through desktops or social media, as characters point-and-click through password protected accounts or digital apps to solve a mystery. While it signals the start of a new genre, it also tells a gripping mystery about the lives we live through the internet. What kind of footprint are we leaving online? Who are we beyond what people can see in the real world? As the internet and social media only grow more embedded into our daily lives, films like this grow more fascinating, haunting and even tragic. Director Aneesh Chaganty cleverly dissects our digital lives, taking an emotional hook and transforming it into a mile-a-minute thriller. John Cho’s also an incredible lead, earning the film’s empathetic core and making its twisty desperation cut.

The film centers on David Kim (John Cho) and his 16-year-old daughter Margot (Michelle La). After the death of his wife, Pam, David and Margot have a very tight relationship, constantly connected via messaging apps and a healthy amount of hang outs. They watch The Voice together, make time for weekly dinners and more, until Margot suddenly disappears one night. After a series of missed phone calls, David is unable to get ahold of Margot. He contacts the police, who assign a Detective (Debra Messing) to assist. This leads David down a rabbit hole of Margot’s digital contacts and social media streams. Attempting to create a picture of who his daughter was, David soon realizes that he may not have known his daughter was. As the mystery grows deeper, David goes down a dark path he’s not ready to confront.

Like the film’s stylistic predecessors (The underrated Unfriended series), Chaganty’s film is tight and focused, scary because of how much it mimics our daily lives and the way we’ve come to view our own personal relationships. Facebook, old emails, Messenger, Venmo, streaming sites and even Reddit all make appearances, giving the film a very keen representation of our evolving techno vernacular. Unlike the film’s peers, which take place in real time, Chaganty allows his to take place over number of days. It even begins with a montage that encompasses Margot’s childhood. By doing so, Chaganty begins to push the boundaries of what’s possible in this type of linear narrative, carefully revealing clues and ideas that go deeper and more intricate. Underneath the smart storytelling structure, is an emotional story about the things we don’t say to those we love, and how these secrets cause division and suppress who we really are. Ultimately, the film satisfies because of its propulsive pace, and the empathy that shines from below the surface.

Searching review John Cho Michelle LaNeedless to say, the film would be dead in the water without John Cho, who basically acts in front of a screen the entire time but is able to take us on a journey that’s all too relatable. Besides the fact that part of me would kill to have Cho as my own dad, Cho plays a good person who’s having something terrible happen to him. Of course, there’s more nuance to it than that, but Cho is our guide in this wild ride, taking us through the film’s revelations and making the emotional twists matter more than the already insane narrative ones. Cho is the anchor, a leading man who we can get behind full stop. On the side, Debra Messing and Joseph Lee fill out some well-rounded side characters, each bringing a unique perspective to everything. In the short time she’s actually on screen, Michelle La makes Margot feel multi-faceted. She’s able to say a lot despite mostly being a cypher.

It’s not hard to see how films like Searching may become more commonplace, but this will inevitably be remembered as one of the groundbreaking films in the genre. It’s smart, adds style to a static structure and keeps us guessing until the explosive end. Chaganty’s narrative chops are fast and furious, while Cho grounds everything and pulls us deep into the film’s digital undertow. Though there are less and less great thrillers out there, this is one of the good ones. It’s smart, concise and has a surprising amount of heart for something with a lot of dark edges. Definitely one of the modern must-see thrillers, scary because of its complex mirror of binary hazards and sobering in the way it tackles the real life, flesh-and-blood tensions between all of us.