“Searching” a triumph of experimental filmmaking

Photo courtesy of Flickr   David Kim (John Cho) investigates the disapearance of his daughter from behind a computer in “Searching.”

Photo courtesy of Flickr

David Kim (John Cho) investigates the disapearance of his daughter from behind a computer in “Searching.”


Originally premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2018 before landing in box offices this August, “Searching” is a dramatic thriller that follows David Kim (John Cho, “Star Trek”) through his increasingly desperate search for his missing 16-year-old daughter Margot (Michelle La, “Mom”). Aiding him in his search are his lazy younger brother, Peter (Joseph Lee, “Miracle That We Met”), and Detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing, “Will & Grace”).

The film is noteworthy not only for being the first Hollywood thriller headlined by an Asian-American actor, but also for its experimental style, as the entire film is set on the screens of computers and smartphones. Going in, it’s hard to not think that the film might eventually trip on its own ambition; surely there would be some plot point or character moment that would be handicapped by its self-imposed need to be performed on a screen. However, “Searching” makes the feat seem absolutely effortless, never venturing into the realm of gimmicky and instead delivering one of the most well-paced, well-acted and thoughtfully-written thrillers in recent memory.

The film begins with a computer startup and does not end until a computer is shut down — our only view of the characters is through the webcams of character’s computers and phones. Between these two points, the film follows the Kim family through 10 years of togetherness and tragedy. It also takes a hard look at digitally constructed identities as David begins to question how much he really knows his daughter while searching through her social media and web history for clues to her disappearance. At one point, when news of Margot’s disappearance is made public, we see an outpouring of emotion on social media from classmates who just one day earlier confessed to barely knowing the missing teen. While the film relies heavily on our entanglement with the internet and social media, it is not an entirely cynical presentation of these practices. Many times throughout the film, breaks in the case come from David’s meticulous tracing of Margot’s digital footsteps. Technology is also what connects the characters in the film to each other as they interact over FaceTime twice as often as in person.

Much of the film’s success is owed to Cho. His amazing performance — often acting by himself on an open FaceTime camera and reacting to web pages — brings emotional weight and authenticity to the film as his desperation, anger, and utter despair come through perfectly in what is often only a small, somewhat pixelated window.

Messing’s performance also deserves praise. Though she is known best for her comedic roles, her composure in this dramatic film never falters. She plays Vick’s moments of ferocity and tenderness with equal excellence. “Searching” also finds its success in part due to its masterful writing by Aneesh Chaganty (who also directs the film) and Sev Ohanian, both of whom are making their feature film debut. The film’s screenplay has earned widespread critical praise, even being compared to the godfather of thrillers, Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window.”

“Searching” both cleverly utilizes and completely transcends its gimmick. Incredible acting and thoughtful writing ensure that it lands each one of its emotional punches and that it never stops swinging in the first place. Timely and masterful, the film makes its style seem utterly intuitive as it delivers a perfectly composed story with a worthy emotional payoff.