Searching (2018) Review

This article was originally published by Sam Sewell-Peterson at SSP Thinks Film.

Searching (2018)
Director: Aneesh Chaganty
Screenwriters: Aneesh Chaganty, Sev Ohanian
Starring: John Cho, Debra Messing, Michelle La, Sara Sohn, Joseph Lee

Searching is a game-changer, no question. How it is put together on a technical level, the final presentation and the revolutionary ways that information is delivered to us, where our eyes are drawn on the screen(s) and how our natural instincts are tricked, it’s all something else. It’s also a good old-fashioned mystery-thriller with a pure emotional wallop.

A widowed father (John Cho) searches for his missing teenage daughter using the technology and social media that has always been a part of his family’s daily lives. But as as the mystery of her disappearance deepens and gains national attention, David comes to realise he hasn’t really known Margot (Michelle La) for a long time. 

One thing you wouldn’t expect from a film like this is an opening scene to rival Pixar’s Up for economic, beautifully simple storytelling of feelings. You’re under the film’s spell from the very start, utterly compelled.

The film takes us on a real ride, an agonising maze for audience and protagonist to navigate by way of Apple and Google. Just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, say twenty minutes before the end when it looks like it’s going to end in a functional but unsatisfying way, our focus is shifted and a plot device unlike anything we’ve seen in narrative film is deployed to take us to the finish line breathless, shocked and reeling.

Searching is a film about unsaid things. Technology gives us so much control over what to say, when and to whom – up until the point you press that send button, any impulsive thought can be taken back, no harm done. But there’s little that is natural about talking by text, email or instant messaging, nothing spontaneous or truly human with that barrier, that safety net.

Technology isn’t really demonised; how could it be considering how David uses it as a tool for good? How could it be when it’s the main plot driver, the chosen aesthetic and framing device of the story and the film world? You’re watching a film about screens, and incorporating multiple screens on a screen of your own. You’re reading this review of the film about screens on a screen. Dangers are acknowledged, human relationships filtered via technology don’t come across as particularly healthy, but as a species our lives are so inextricably tied to our devices, our accounts and easy to access information; so much so that we can’t really function without it.

David realises quite early on in his search that he never really got to know his daughter. From her birth he is shown to incorporate technology heavily in their lives, primarily to preserve memories and stay in touch, but he never seems to truly talk to Margot, and especially not from outside the confines of the screen. He seems to allow her a certain amount of independence and privacy for her age because he trusts that he can always reach her if he needs to. It’s this complete trust in technology over his living, breathing daughter that starts the chain of events leading to her disappearance.

Searching is a film like no other released in 2018. Others may have filtered their story through the prism of technology, and it was the very basis of found footage horror films from The Blair Witch Project onwards, but Searching never feels contrived, the emotions and the characters never lessened by the form the story has taken. Everything here is heightened by technology and the expertise of writer-director Aneesh Chaganty who uses every tool at his disposal to make the prospect of this and any future project a truly exciting one. 


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