Often when creators undertake new approaches to storytelling, they don’t always get it right the first time (or even the first few times). For example, while the found-footage genre was initiated with 1980’s Cannibal Holocaust, it wasn’t popularised until 1999’s The Blair Witch Project. Other examples might be 3D becoming mainstream due to Avatar rather than something like Jaws 3D. Or perhaps 1927’s The Jazz Singer being known as the first film with spoken dialogue, even though several short films had already met this challenge.
Searching is one of those latter films. It may not be the first attempt to tell a story entirely through digital screens (that honour belongs to 2014’s Unfriended). But here it is an experience so astounding that in the future Searching’s approach to this new filming technique might be considered the birth of an entirely new genre.
A loving and caring father, David Kim (John Cho) seems to have a great relationship with his 16-year-old daughter, Margot (Michelle La). This is in spite of the recent death of Pamela (Sara Sohn), David’s wife and Margot’s mother.
But one day, out of the blue, Margot suddenly stops replying to David’s communications. Slowly it soon becomes apparent that Margot has gone missing; causing the police, led by Detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing), to start an investigation.
Meanwhile David starts his own search, going through his daughter’s social media and friend lists in order to track her down. But it soon becomes apparent to the worried father that he doesn’t know his daughter as well as he thought he did.
Searching opens with what has got to be the most familiar image to technology users: the Microsoft computer wallpaper, Bliss. The image is well-chosen, its name reflecting the state of David’s family life before the tragic death of his partner. The scene might be considered sentimental by some, but it effortlessly lays out how this story will be told: entirely through digital screens.
For the full 102 minutes, this movie never cuts away from either a computer, TV or phone screen. Every actor, every conversation, every image, every video, every telephone call, every single piece of information and emotion is conveyed to the audience through a digital screen. It is, quite frankly, an absolute masterclass of storytelling, easily becoming the most innovative film I’ve seen in years.
In the same way the intricate sound work of A Quiet Place became more memorable than any other aspect of the film; the bulk of the plaudits for Searching should be for the editing team. Their ability to know exactly how long the audience needs in order to consume and retain the information on each screen makes any potential confusion nonexistent. Indeed, I haven’t seen editing this strong since 2010’s Inception. Bravo Nick Johnson & Will Merrick! You are guaranteed a nomination for Best Editing at next year’s Oscars.
That’s not to say the direction or writing should be sniffed at. Nothing could be further from the truth. Along with co-writer Sev Ohanian, director Aneesh Chaganty crafts a missing persons story that keeps you on the edge of your seat with twists and turns galore. The final product ends up being an astounding feature debut from Chaganty, easily rivalling the work done in last year’s Get Out.
Rather than the racial subversion in that Jordan Peele classic, Chaganty instead explores the more widely identifiable struggle of parental helplessness in the face of teenage rebellion. And much of the heavy lifting in portraying that struggle lies with who he has cast in the lead role. Without a doubt this is one of John Cho’s strongest performances to date; his role as a panicked father drawing us along with every painful minute he must suffer. Despite the film not technically being a one-man show, it’s hard not to compare what he does to similarly brilliant solo outings, such as Tom Hardy in Locke, or Ryan Reynolds in Buried.
Of course, like any technology-based film, there are a variety of shortcuts made to keep things moving along at a steady pace. God only knows if there will be a day when you can upload a couple of dozen high-definition videos in only a few seconds! And perhaps, all things considered, there are a few too many coincidences in the latter half so that the film’s multiple threads can be tied up in a nice little bow.
Innovative. Engaging. Masterful. There aren’t that many words in the English language to describe the rollercoaster ride that Searching takes you on. Maybe in a few years there might be so many great entries in this still unnamed genre that Searching will be considered rather average. But right now, what Searching has done is create something so new and exciting that it deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as The Blair Witch Project and Avatar.