Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Movie Review: Searching

Searching **** / *****
Directed by: Aneesh Chaganty.
Written by: Aneesh Chaganty and Sev Ohanian.
Starring: John Cho (David Kim), Debra Messing (Detective Rosemary Vick), Joseph Lee (Peter), Michelle La (Margot), Sara Sohn (Pamela Nam Kim).
Setting a film entirely on computer screens has been tried a few times over the last few years – and it presents interesting challenges for writer and directors, to find ways to tell a story using a different kind of cinematic language. Unfriended worked remarkably well (I wanted to see its sequel earlier this summer, but it bombed and was out of theaters quickly) – even if I have to admit that film is more of an exercise in style than one with an interesting story or characters. This is where Aneesh Chaganty’s Searching improves on the concept – as it finds and engrossing story, with three dimensional characters, and applies it to the same concept. I do think they cheat a little as the film reaches its conclusion, but by then, you’re caught up in the story, and you don’t care so much.
The film opens with a touching montage – and evolving series of computer screens through the years showing the lives of David (John Cho), his wife Pamela (Sara Sohn) and their only daughter Margot (Michelle La), through the years as Margot grows up, and Pamela fights an ultimately losing battle with cancer. The main action will happen over just a few days – with Margot now in high school, and David trying his best to parent her, but avoiding some of the tougher subjects – mainly her mother. They communicate mainly by text message and FaceTime calls. When Margot goes missing one night after study group, and David gets increasingly frantic, and has to find ways to break into her social media accounts, etc. to try and find her, he starts to realize just how much about his daughter he didn’t know. The police will eventually become involved – Detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing) is assigned the missing persons case, and the tension ratchets up with each new discovery.
I won’t spoil what happens from there – one of the chief pleasures of Searching is see the plot twists and turns, most of which I will admit surprised me (even if I was suspicious given the name of the teams at the school Margot attends, which is cleverly shown in the background, but never spoken aloud). What I will say is that the movie works remarkably well, given the limitations the concept of the movie has – and a lot of the credit has to go to John Cho, who delivers an excellent performance as the increasingly frazzled David. Most of the movie is him on a webcam, with a split screen between him and what he is looking at on the screen itself (or just the screen). It’s a performance that requires a lot from Cho, without giving him the kind of normal room an actor has to work with – and he’s excellent. The rest of the performances work well – and ride that fine line between being too withholding, and too obvious in terms of the secrets the characters will eventually reveal.
The film is a quite a calling card for first time filmmaker Aneesh Chaganty as well – who finds a way to make this all visually interesting, as well propulsive in terms of its narrative momentum (the editing on the film is top notch). I do think that he cheats in the end – there are things we see that we probably wouldn’t, or at least, shouldn’t be seeing on the computer screen we are watching. These are necessary to move the story along, but I wish there was another way they found to do it.
Overall though, Searching works remarkably well – its tense and entertaining, and doesn’t beat you over the head with a message about technology, or how we become a slave to it (the film is neutral on the subject, but you can certainly read it in both directions if you wanted). Plus, the filmmakers had to find a way to keep this all tense without resorting to the scare tactics that Unfriended had. The result is a fascinating, entertaining film.

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