REVIEW: "Searching" is everything you didn't know you were looking for
If you’ve been following the new movie releases as I have been, this last month has been somewhat of a drought for quality films playing in your local theater, and upcoming releases do not seem to be getting better. That being said, one movie stands out as a rather unassuming shining spot amongst the sea of general mediocrity. That movie is “Searching.”
On its surface, “Searching” is a movie with a pretty clear gimmick: it all takes place on a computer screen. It’s not even super original at this point, having been done in recent films such as the “Unfriended” series among others, usually ending with poor results. While screen-based movies are a super cheap way to make what have primarily been horror films, “Searching” does something different with the format. It gives it weight.
“Searching” is the story of David Kim (John Cho), a Korean-American father whose daughter Margot goes missing. In order to help with the investigation to find her, he has to connect with her friends and go through her computer to figure out the who, where, why and how of her mysterious disappearance.
The gimmick of being entirely on a computer screen seems oddly counterintuitive to something supposed to be “cinematic,” but the movie pulls it off with a lot of clever tricks in the way it uses the technology to ground the story in surprising realism and reveal a very human story.
The primary reason “Searching” works so well is because of the care given to the way technology is used. Technology and social media are obviously massively important to modern society, and getting that wrong would be a devastating blow to a movie like this. Fortunately, “Searching” represents the way we use social media and the internet so accurately that the result is relatable, frustrating, sometimes quite funny, and often poignant. We are frequently just looking at a cursor typing out the “dialogue,” and the way that the text is typed out—from the specific pauses when typing, to writing out an emotional and angry rant only to delete it and write something more rational—brilliantly gives us insight into David’s mind and emotions, allowing us understand and care about him as well as recognize the faceless cursor or mouse as distinctly his voice, despite not actually seeing him.
The movie does many clever things to ground it in realism but also make it especially cinematic. For instance, David keeps a tab open on YouTube playing “relaxing music,” which is certainly something I’ve done many times, but it also serves as the film's score. The background tracks lend emotion to the scene without sacrificing the realism. It also helps that the film got the rights to use many actual sites such as Facebook, Instagram, Venmo, and many more. It’s a small thing, but it makes a big difference. These details are just a few among many that the film creates to immerse you in its genuinely engaging mystery.
Despite the fact that the film is constantly locked on one computer screen or another, some genuinely good performances carry the movie. If you only know John Cho as Sulu from the JJ Abrams “Star Trek” movies or as that guy who shows up in a few episodes of that show you like, then it may come as a surprise to see him take charge as a really great dramatic lead. He actually gets quite a bit of screen time through mostly believable uses of FaceTime calling (I say “mostly” because, come on, nobody leaves FaceTime open that much).
His ability to convey so much while acting primarily against a computer screen is incredibly impressive. His performance is so realistic and relatable. Without it, the movie would fall completely flat.
The only fault I found in some of the performances were that supporting characters' voices sounded a little canned on calls, like it was prerecorded and placed in later. Aside from that, the other on-screen performances are all well acted and important, specifically Detective Vick (Debra Messing), David’s brother Peter (Joseph Lee), Margot (Michelle La), and a handful of Margot’s peers.
I am pleased to say “Searching” managed to surprise me. It surprised me by defying what I thought this type of film could be. It surprised me a number of times with the twists and turns of its complex narrative. Most importantly, it surprised me in the way I felt connected to the characters and the story. Besides a couple late revelations that are a little far-fetched, the unique format really sold itself as something totally believable and, in doing so, became something unexpectedly affecting. It is heartfelt, moving and frequently tense and finds humor in the ways it reveals humanity. I wasn’t looking for “Searching,” but I am incredibly glad I found it.
If you’re looking for something to see this week, make it “Searching."
Rated PG-13 for thematic content, drug and sexual references, and for language.
Runtime: 1h 42min