★★★ / ★★★★
Once in a while a film like “Searching” comes along to show that a device currently being used to tell certain stories is so limited, it manages to set a new standard. “Searching,” written by Aneesh Chaganty and Sev Ohanian, directed by the former, unfolds, for the most part, on a computer screen, but it is confident enough to break from the conceit when the time is precisely right. In a way, allowing our eyes to focus on a box full of icons, missed call and voicemail notifications, webpages, and chat windows is an act of creating a sense of claustrophobia. Getting out of that box eventually is thus an act of exhalation and yet the tension remains since the mystery is yet to be solved.
The mystery involves a widower (John Cho) who begins to suspect that his teenage daughter (Michelle La) is missing after she failed to come home from study group and did not attend school the next day. His fears escalate when his calls go to voicemail directly, his texts remain unanswered, and discovering later on that the weekly money he gave his daughter for private piano lessons did not go toward that at all. In fact, the piano teacher claims that Margot had stopped her lessons six months ago. Cho is nearly every frame and he delivers a spectrum of emotions as a parent who grows increasingly desperate to find answers regarding his child’s whereabouts. It is said that great performers can tell a story even when being shot only from the chest up. I’ve never seen him this good in a lead role.
Perhaps most enjoyable about the picture is that it puts the viewer in the shoes of a parent who investigates. Following the mouse’s arrow going from one website to the next may sound unappealing at first, but those familiar with websites like Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Gmail, Venmo, and Tumblr will immediately recognize the logic of the investigation. More importantly, however, those who are less familiar are still able to follow because it is shown that each one has a specific purpose.
For instance, Instagram is more aligned with posting a picture with a short caption underneath while Facebook tends to showcase statuses and events. Venmo involves currency while YouTube involves easily searchable videos (with toxic comments to boot). In other words, the technologies used within the conceit of staring at a computer screen is made accessible—crucial in telling stories that we can invest in emotionally.
The story offers a minefield of twists and turns. Particularly enjoyable is we get a chance to suspect that anyone and everyone could be involved in Margot’s disappearance—even the father who is apparently so distraught, he would be willing to attack another person in public just to get the next big clue. At one point, I wondered whether the parent was simply using the various technologies to record his misery and all of the effort he put in finding his daughter—just so he wouldn’t be a target of suspicion by the authorities. (I suppose that shows the way I perceive humanity at this point.) Better yet—even when a figure in Margot’s life may no longer be a suspect, we wish to take a closer look. Just like Cho’s character, we cannot help but wonder if we made a mistake in treating something trivial but turning out to be critical in order to solve the puzzle.
“Searching” knows how to build suspense effectively, from the way the score builds from silent to frantic down to the manner in which editing is utilized to paint a picture of how a father feels when he has finally discovered a trail of breadcrumbs. But even when there are breadcrumbs, an individual makes so many footprints online that we wonder if these crumbs would lead to another dead end. But that is what skillful mystery-thrillers tend to offer: A series of hopeless situations illuminated only by opening a locked door after sleuthing and taking on seemingly insurmountable hardships.