When You Don't Know What You Don't Know - Searching
One of the things I enjoy most about movies is when you're watching something you feel like you've never seen before. When the medium is being advanced in small, but noticeable ways, you start to appreciate the foundations of storytelling. And while a movie may not ultimately be a masterpiece, watching those advancements take shape can be special. Searching, for instance, is not a masterpiece. But it is doing just enough that seems new that it feels like a clear evolution in the whodunit sub-genre. Director Aneesh Chaganty finds novel ways to use form to tell this story and the end result is a worthwhile thriller that will probably have pretty broad appeal.
The film opens with a 7-minute segment that feels like a Google advertisement, in part because Chaganty's previous career was making ads for Google. We have an Asian family at the center of a story that doesn't require that, which looks like real progress. The Kims were a young family struck by tragedy when Pam Kim (played by Sara Sohn) dies in the film's opening segment.
The rest of the film centers on David Kim (played by John Cho) working to find his daughter, Margot (played by Michelle La), who is suddenly missing. With the passing of her mother, her relationship with her father has become strained and the events of the film test how much he really knows about her. Who are her friends? Who does she spend time with? What has she really been up to? The search for clues as to her whereabouts is framed by all of these questions and David must work to put the pieces together before it is too late.
Helping him in his search is Detective Rosemary Vick (played by Debra Messing), who has a history of heroic police work. Together, they must figure out whether Margot ran away or was abducted. Is she still alive? Who has the answers to help them solve the mystery? The film works characters in and out of the plot in service of advancing the investigation, which makes for a wild ride.
We watch every frame of this film through an in-story camera. Every shot is either capturing on-screen actions when a character is using a computer, or news footage covering the rescue effort. Chaganty manages to make every bit of it make sense (for the most part). This is not the first time we have seen this technique, of course, as the Unfriended franchise relies on the same method. The difference here is that it never feels like a gimmick. The screenplay manages to create enough movement that the story never feels static. The filmmakers find inventive ways to note the passing of time and the change of location. It artfully overcomes the challenges that have made other similar techniques feel dumb in comparison.
Where the film falters is in overindulgence--there are certain beats that last a little too long and by the end, it is possible you will wind up feeling like they should have wrapped more quickly. Because of twists, you get something like three separate endings. While that's not necessarily a bad thing, it is likely to be the most divisive on-screen element.
Ultimately, it is the depth of the familial story that gives the film its true strength--heart. Very few movies have explored the pain of disconnection with one's children in this modern world in such a gripping way. Online identities, modern danger and the timeless challenges of being a parent coalesce to create a real character study and John Cho rises to the challenge. This could have been a lot worse if it weren't in the hands of such talented people. One can only hope this is just the beginning of a move in a positive direction. Hollywood needs it.
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