A shocking and thoroughly engaging mystery for today’s tech-obsessed generation.
Searching, the feature film debut from Annesh Chaganty, looks like a gimmick. Its entire narrative takes place within the restraints of iMessage chat screens, Facebook pages, FaceTime conversations, handheld calls and other, everyday applications. Similar in execution to Unfriended, but strengthened with a much more involving narrative (and generally just better overall), Chaganty’s work here is a stellar achievement, both a captivating and surprisingly dark mystery and a damning observation of tech-culture.
David Kim (John Cho) lives a quiet life with his daughter Margot (Michelle La). Following the death of their mother, the two connect mainly through messaging on their phones and laptops, pushing their underlying sadness under the carpet and trying to pedal on. Suddenly, Margot stops responding to texts and calls. A raised eyebrow turns to worry which turns to panic, as no-one seems to know where she is. In fact, no-one seems to know Margot at all, even her so-called ‘friends’.
Assigned to investigate the case is Detective Wick (Debra Messing), a mother herself who understands the pain of not knowing their young (she tells a great tale of how her son fraudulently took small amounts of money from neighbours in aid of a fake charity). She enlists the help of David while she pursues other leads, who goes through anything and everything Margot is logged in on to try to figure out what on earth happened to her.
The opening sequence kicked off with that classic ‘Windows’ hill background, is a slightly heavy-handed, yet emotional all-the-same introduction to the Kim family. Played to the backing track of Torin Borrowdale’s wonderfully soothing, tear-jerking symphony, it is reminiscent of similar (perhaps, better) montages in other films, namely, Pixar’s Up. But to call it emotional manipulation is a stretch – it’s all within a sensible context. Everything that’s shown is an essential appetiser, giving hearty foundations to the subsequent events, and let me tell you, tears were definitely forming.
For a timeline that takes place entirely within the realms of technology, its pace is remarkable. Palpable and pulse-racing, the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it movements of David’s frantic searches keep the momentum up at a staggering pace, with there rarely being moments which don’t further the story. Even the simplest touches as the haunting stillness of a MacBook screensaver, somehow majestic to look at but quietly foreshadowing ill developments, add weight to how gripping the film is. Chaganty stretches his imagination through all the seemingly endless programs we use every day affords us, often in ways, I wasn’t even entirely familiar with. Belittling this is a narrow-sighted thriller makes little sense – it’s remarkably resourceful.
This isn’t without its ulterior messaging though – when Margot’s disappearance elevates, David scrolls through Facebook and Twitter, seeing the outpouring of prayers and best wishes for a girl they didn’t even know, including teens he knows himself couldn’t care less, but want the online attention that inevitably follows such ‘admirable actions’. This is without a doubt a quiet, but firm indictment of the culture which is seen all too often during any sort of real-life tragedy, including the relentless speculation about what actually happened (tapping into the Making a Murderer sensation).
Cho’s performance is not one without much restraint, veering to the delirious edges of his psyche, from utter, helpless despair, to maniacal anger, to disquieting anxiety and paranoia. But he’s a believable core to the story, managing to hold your attention even with the pitter-patter of his typing. Messing too is quite superb, taking on a small but vital role in which she shows some painful humanity in the film’s more emotional scenes – you can see her agony as she tries to reassure David everything will be okay.
Without the visual toys, this would be, rightly, criticised as a thriller which wants to mimic the merits of other missing person dramas, namely Gone Girl. But Chaganty keeps the entire experience fiercely engrossing, rather amazingly never giving the game away, making a conventional storyline appear to be as fresh as the first time it was told.