When David Kim’s daughter, Margot, goes missing he frantically works to solve the mystery surrounding her disappearance. This premise isn’t one that is overly unique. You can find this exact premise any night on broadcast cable, or in a host of other crime/mysteries, both in theaters and at home. The reason for this is because these types of stories are incredibly compelling. A mystery, in any form, is almost always interesting, then you add the thrilling crime element and you have a story that can reach a wide audience. Searching, the latest version of this story comes from first time director Aneesh Chaganty (who also wrote the screenplay with Sev Ohanian), and is unlike any other film in the genre.
Searching creates its own lane by putting everything that is on screen inside of a screen. This is something that we have recently seen with some success in the Unfriended movies but haven’t really seen much outside of that. There is a reason for that; it is incredibly hard to tell a story in this format. Keeping everything on a computer screen or phone screen greatly limits ways for the story to naturally progress. This exact thing is what held back what were otherwise very good, Unfriended movies. A horror movie can manufacture a way that would fit the genre and not be too far of a logic leap, but any genre outside of horror doesn’t have that scapegoat. To make this format work you would have to be very clever and have an incredibly compelling story, and those are the best words to describe Searching.
The area where Unfriended (and most movies) fell short is where Searching excelled, and that’s the screenplay. This film is very well written and is a huge reason as to why this film works so well. Format aside, the story and story telling is very strong. Chaganty and Ohanian tell an efficient story, without losing any nuance. They effectively communicate a lot of information early in the story and as the film goes on the pace doesn’t slow. The film only runs for an hour and forty minutes but a lot of things happen in that relatively short runtime. That pace helps to keep the film compelling because that pace builds tension. Another solid element of the screenplay are the twists thrown all throughout this story. Any crime/mystery story is going to have at least a couple of twists. They have to be there, otherwise the story is bland and unsatisfying. When the twists do come and how many there are, is where a lot of movies trip up. For the most part Searching navigates this pretty well. The twists were unexpected and shocking without being overdramatic. This fed into the larger mystery in a way that also made the film very compelling.
As clever as the story was, the filmmaking was just as clever. Chaganty was able to avoid the pitfalls of this format in a way that was very smart. He was able to find creative, unique and natural ways to have John Cho in front of a screen. The cleverest way was to have him in front of cameras that weren’t actively on. This is a brilliant solution to the problem with this format and works perfectly for this film. There were plenty of times in which he was on a Skype call or Facetiming someone but there were also a few times when he was done with the call but the scene continued. Chaganty also brought in several different types of cameras for the story to take place. We saw parts of the film through prerecorded videos, news cameras/coverage and security cameras. This differentiates scenes in an effective way and lets the story progress in a way that feels natural. Overall, Searching is a very well made film. There is a great mystery to solve and a compelling story to follow. However, towards the end the film gets a bit to clever for its own good. There was about one twist too many for my taste. It doesn’t come close to ruining the film but it was unfortunate for what was an otherwise excellent film.
A big part of what makes Searching an excellent film is the performance from its lead, John Cho (David Kim). Cho is one of my favorite actors right now because when given the proper opportunity he lights up the screen. He is an incredibly talented actor with a wide range and he shows all of that in this film. Cho gives an incredibly compelling performance and drives a lot of what is great in the film. I can’t imagine how difficult it would be to perform in front of a computer screen but he pulls it off with ease. He delivers a wide range of emotions that elevated his character and the whole film. There were several times in the film where the scene would just linger on Cho, where he is giving multiple emotions and feelings without saying a word. He brought across the emotions that the film needs and filled the audience with those same feelings. He was able to do that through a screen, which is very impressive. There isn’t much character development throughout the film but the character relationships work mainly because of his performance. He covered this mistake with a charm that was disarming and believable. Searching works in part because John Cho gives one of the best performances of the year. If there were one reason to watch this film, it would be him because he is a great actor that most people don’t know.
I was a fan of the Unfriended movies, mainly because I enjoyed the format and theme. It’s interesting because it’s different and that’s a great thing in film nowadays. However, I wasn’t sure it was more than a quirky horror gimmick. Searching showed that there is a place for this format outside of the horror genre. It still seems like an incredibly difficult style to make a film, with the proper script and performances it can work very well. It’s a great crime film that is entertaining, while still having a lot to say about the media, how people react to it and the Internet. There are a few times that were played for humor but when thought about are a bit convicting because of how we use and interact with the Internet. It’s hard to make a film that comments on something as deep and interesting as the way we use the Internet and not get caught up in that. Chaganty kept the film focused on the story, and presented a brief (and much needed commentary). Searching makes what would seem impossible in the filmmaking sense look easy. Most importantly it was a clever and compelling crime story that everyone should see.
4 out of 5 stars
Director: Aneesh Chaganty Writers: Aneesh Chaganty & Sev Ohanian Starring: John Cho, Debra Messing, Michelle La & Joseph Lee Release Date: August 31st Rated: PG-13 Runtime: 1 hour and 42 minutes Image Credit: Imdb