“Searching” Review

Almost seven years later, I still remember how strange it felt to hear over an intercom that a fellow high school senior killed himself. I wasn’t close friends with the guy, as were many of my colleagues, but all of us stumbled through the halls with blank faces that weren’t even ready to comprehend the sadness that a person we knew felt so down on life that he decided the only solution was to end it.

That was hard, but what was even more difficult was the endless stream of people that eulogized the kid when they either A) knew nothing of him, B) didn’t care at all about his existence when he was alive or C) outright loathed him before his death. In one especially ghoulish moment, a fellow classmate who openly talked about how much he hated the victim before his suicide created the Facebook memorial group and started posting statuses eulogizing him. That brand of insincerity made my skin crawl.

Searching, a groundbreaking investigative drama told entirely through computer, phone and television screens, had a scene that reminded me of that. The father (John Cho) is speaking to a high school girl about where his missing daughter is, and this classmate couldn’t care any less about what happened to her. When the daughter (named Margot) is pronounced dead by the police, said girl goes on social media to make tearful speeches about how close they were as friends. I felt so slimy just watching people use the deaths of others to give themselves likes, shares and views.

A worse movie would’ve based its entire premise off of that one relatable idea, but it’s just one brilliant section of a downright incredible thriller. I understand the skepticism about staring only at a screen all day, but give this movie a chance and you’ll find an experience that’s every bit of illuminating as it is exciting. It’s an insidiously exciting combination of true crime documentary filmmaking techniques with the advancements of modern technology. Gazing at someone else’s High Sierra computer screen background will never be more exciting.

The plot in one sentence: David’s (Cho) daughter Margot (Michelle La) goes missing, sparking a search that calls into question how much this father really knew his offspring. They’ve had a rocky relationship since wife/mom Pam (Sara Sohn) died of cancer a few years back. We see this through a montage that feels like someone took the heart-wrenching “Married Life” sequence in Up and recreated it in live-action.

So David goes searching (heh) for his daughter using every bit of technology possible; phone calls, e-mails, texts, social media accounts, anything to get an idea of where she could be. He’s assisted by detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing in a rare film role), a top-notch investigator whose own motherhood gives her a personal connection to this case. David opens a spreadsheet on Numbers (a Mac version of Excel) and starts inputting info of Margot’s contacts, where they last knew her, etc. It’s all simple detective work, but these scenes are compelling because they eschew flashy action for workmanlike filmmaking lays out its story as if it’s a detective rummaging through just the facts. I think more movies nowadays should try that.

Much of what follows could’ve been more boring than a watching a YouTube tutorial (there’s a reason why you skip through most of those to find what you want), but Searching manages to make a man scrolling through his computer more compelling than the brain-dead action of most summer blockbusters. Director Aneesh Chaganty had me hanging on every click as he made typing names into graphs the kind of edge-of-your-seat viewing that’s become too infrequent from the movies these days. A moment in later in the film in which the context behind a missed phone call is explained brings to mind those Unsolved Mysteries episodes that were a masterclass in eerie and low-budget thrills.

Most of Searching is carried by Cho; astute viewers will know him as “MILF Guy” from American Pie or Harold from the Harold & Kumar series, but here he drains all comedy out of his screen persona and becomes a credible wounded family man before our very eyes. Debra Messing embodies a role very different from the perky ditzes she’s played in other projects; to talk more about it would ruin some truly great surprises.

The film also makes some valid points about the bloodthirsty nature of our media, which the internet has mutated into an entire culture of amateur sleuths trading theories and evidence over the pages of Reddit. This happens amidst some twists that will make you audibly gasp once they become apparent. Trust me, I’m speaking from experience. You may be skeptical of this picture, think that it’s more proof that all these screens are ruining the world; I get that, but what I will say is that give Searching a chance and you will find at least 10 aspects you really enjoyed about it, and another that will touch you deeply. I just can’t stop thinking about high school.

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