Searching is a brilliant concept greatly realised… and then the ending happens.
Note: this review originally ran on Set the Tape (link).
Searching opens with the best opening sequence in a movie since Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets this time last year. On the start-up screen of a Windows XP computer, a mouse sets about creating a user profile, along with an accompanying ID picture to be taken from a webcam. The startled, slightly confused people who appear on the camera as they fiddle about setting the shot up and all say cheese adorably out of sync with one another is our introduction to the Kims; father David (John Cho), mother Pamela (Sara Sohn), and their infant daughter Margot (Michelle La). Over the next several minutes, roughly a decade passes by, all witnessed via their actions on the Windows XP computer they diligently cling to throughout, and we learn everything about them through the technology that’s integral to their lives.
Desktop wallpapers change from infant Margot to Pokémon fan-art to first days of various grades. Margot’s proficiency in piano playing is shown through varying uploads to constantly updating versions of YouTube. Conversations through IAM migrate to Apple Messenger and FaceTime. Margot signs up to Facebook, David is tricked into playing screamer maze games (with his inevitable reaction being filmed for YouTube), unspecified characters are seen Googling inquiries about sex and how to have The Talk. Pamela’s cancer diagnosis has David looking up potential additional treatments the whole family can partake in, her remission shared in a mass email chain, the relapse being documented by Margot’s calendar happily noting down the day her mom is supposed to come home, before moving it back a few days, then again a few weeks, and then deleting it altogether.
It’s an exceptional opening montage, with director and co-writer Aneesh Chaganty compressing so much information and backstory on his protagonists into such a digestible and natural package, allowing the film’s main plot to hit the ground running straight afterwards without feeling rushed. But it also demonstrates one of the purest understandings of the relationship and intertwining nature between technology and our modern daily lives that I have seen in any media up to now. Most similar attempts to pull off something like this can come off as empty gimmickry (see 95% of found-footage movies) or utterly embarrassing attempts to appear hip to the youth that display fundamental misunderstandings of technology’s place in modern society (The Emoji Movie is one of the worst offenders in this regard but keep an eye out next time a fictional work uses “viral” for nothing more than easy plot mechanisms). With Searching’s opening sequence, however, Chaganty displays them as simply integral facets of our lives regardless of whether it’s all somewhat new or something we’ve grown up with knowing our whole lives.
Video chats allow David a chance to remain connected to a growing Margot whilst he’s off on long work trips. Non-physical calendars are how people like Margot keep their lives organised now. Signing up to Facebook was just something that everyone at a certain age did because it allowed friendships to not remain in stasis outside of school hours. Emails became the way that big news, good or ill, broke. Even seemingly-clunky bits of blunt Googled statements are natural and true-to-life, being how most people (especially older ones like David) seek quick answers to questions that can’t easily be solved, looking for any way to help. It’s the best realisation I’ve seen yet of executive producer Timur Bekmambetov’s vision of what he calls “Screen Life,” which he’s also utilised in his role as exec producer on the Unfriended films, and Chaganty and co-writer Sev Ohanian work up to a grace note that elicited tears from myself and comparisons to nothing less than the opening of Pixar’s Up.
The rest of Searching is not as good, but it still manages to forcibly grab ahold of eyeballs and make novel usage of its conceit to freshen up an otherwise played-out narrative. Two years on from Pamela’s passing, now 15-year-old Margot goes out to a study group one night and doesn’t come home the following morning. David can’t reach her and, after all other possible explanations come up empty, he ends up at the centre of a missing person’s case, being tasked by the decorated Detective in charge of the investigation (Debra Messing) to help search up potential leads through Margot’s personal computer and various social medias. Whilst doing so, he finds out some distressing truths that Margot had been hiding from him, a pattern of lies, a deep sadness she could only freely express through social medias, shady characters she had various interactions with, and the growing realisation that he may be partially responsible for whatever has happened.
In terms of substance, then, Searching is about the disconnect caused by physical connections and connections made online. But whereas more braindead features about this area would go about demonising the technology in a blind fervour (hello, Men, Women & Children), Searching, without wishing to spoil too majorly, instead (initially) goes for something altogether different and more understanding, namely by not demonising the technology or the connections it can provide. For every insensitive pot-smoking asshole whom Margot had a tangential connection to, she is also able to express herself online through social media (which David does not have) in open and honest ways that she simply cannot at home. She can find support, likeminded individuals, and connections that she is otherwise unable to have IRL, which is something the film doesn’t undercut the validity of and instead mines for something that’s arguably the direct antithesis of most tech-panic thrillers with similar kinds of plots. When Margot is sharing her ennui and grief to, at most, a dozen strangers via a streaming app, the finger of pity and blame points in the opposite direction than usual.
Mechanically, Chaganty and Ohanian weave the film’s conceit into the very bones of how they tell the story. Searching doesn’t stick solely to one laptop screen, but it also never cheats either. A list of potential suspects and their alibis are put together through an actual Database in Apple’s equivalent of Office, made up of names, phone numbers, and pictures taken from Margot’s Facebook – which, in one of the film’s clever humorous touches, requires a wild goose chase of “forgotten password” requests before David can even get in. Phone calls that don’t take place via Face Time and Web Cams, effectively the default mode of communication nowadays, are still routed through the laptop because they’re all connected to one another. David’s habit of leaving both his laptop and Web Cam on at all times creates a chilling contrast between the zen-like screensaver and the three panicked unanswered attempts at phone calls by Margot on the night of her disappearance. News reports are viewed online, we witness a pivotal action by David second-hand after the fact, accompanied by a stream of anonymous commenters leaving their insensitive uninformed and un-asked for opinions.
The highest compliment I can pay Searching is that, despite the outline of the plot, the delivery and structure of the story are so tied to the laptop-conceit that I can’t see it working anywhere near as effectively if it were told in a ‘normal’ way. It’s edited fantastically, too, with Nick Johnson and Will Merrick getting the pace up and keeping it up the whole time, always knowing the exact time to cut or how long to hold on a more comedic beat without it feeling like a groaner. And then there’s John Cho, holding proceedings down with a nervous energy fuelled by grief and fear. Cho’s one of those character actors who has been around for ages somehow never getting his due, but he is on top form here, even managing to sell clunkier trailer-ready lines – such examples including an indignant “I know my daughter” which only exists for an even clunkier ironic echo 20 minutes later that does not work in a film like this – with wounded gravitas. I’d say that it’s a one-man show, but he also recognises that the laptop conceit really makes the film a two-hander and he works perfectly with it throughout.
So, despite all of this praise, despite that incredible opening sequence, despite John Cho being great, and despite all of the effort put in to making sure the ‘Screen Life’ conceit is no mere gimmick… why am I still telling you not to bother with Searching? After 80 minutes of film, building up to a bold crescendo that, despite a few phonier beats in the finer details, felt like the only fitting way for the story to end, I was all set to deliver the raves to Searching, labelling it as one of the stand-outs of the (admittedly underwhelming) year so far.
…then it kept going. Rather than conclude on an admittedly downer-as-hell note, Searching instead marched onwards and proceeded to undo every single scrap of hard work up to then with the kind of utterly stupid and nonsensical twist that can kill otherwise-good films stone dead. It’s the kind of twist that fails on multiple levels. It requires suspension of disbelief and logic leaps so great that even Evil Knievel in his prime couldn’t clear them (plus some collateral demonization of mental illness for good measure). It turns the film’s handling of social media into yet another regressive “OOGIE BOOGIE BOO” scenario that’s been done to death in damn-near hundreds of other significantly worse films and popular TV shows over the years. And it leads into a sprint towards a Hollywood ending so unearned, and is predicated on so many coincidences being retconned into “foreshadowing,” that it feels borderline contemptuous and retroactively kills any pleasures I got out of the film leading up to it.
It’s a damn shame that Searching collapses so totally in its final stretch because, for so much of its runtime, it does everything right. I’m not even opposed to the idea of the film ending in a manner that wasn’t a total downer. But for about 80% of its runtime, Searching felt like something new, something honest, something more nuanced, aware and real than most entries in this kind of genre typically are. What the twist and accompanying ending instead reveal is that Searching, on a narrative level, is simply the same old out-of-touch trash dressed up in cutting-edge clothes. That, deep down, it’s barely any different from something like Men, Women & Children, and that’s a real heartbreaker.