It’s either a bold advancement of the cinematic form, a gimmick with a short lifespan, or a glib metacommentary on how our lives are spent staring at screens—or all three—but the laptop/smartphone point-of-view movie is still carving out its own genre. Early efforts like “Open Windows” and “Unfriended” weren’t strong contenders for the genre’s continued existence: their grasps on consumer technologies were tenuous at best, and their experimentations with the form didn’t rise above novelty. So how does “Searching” fare?
Before there’s enough time to ponder the question, this surprising little film proves that it can provoke an emotional response like the best of them. Straight out the gate, writer/director Aneesh Chaganty ensures that his movie’s draw won’t be the mere fact that it plays out on computer and phone screens: “Searching” opens with a character-driven montage that’s all show and no tell, gorgeously weaving a familial story through short videos, saved photos, and social media memories. It’s a touching ode to the role that technology plays in cleaning our nostalgia goggles, and a poignant tear machine that rivals the beginning of “Up”.
“Searching” is about the relationship between a father and his daughter—the latter of whom goes mysteriously missing—and the movie never forgets that. John Cho’s bravura performance as David Kim bleeds every emotion that a real-life father would feel for a lost daughter, and with disarming rawness. He’s openhearted enough to receive automatic empathy. The search for his daughter Margot begins when she never returns home from a late night study session, prompting David to navigate various Internet locales to track her down.
The accuracy with which “Searching” depicts the use of its various devices is a breath of fresh air—too many contemporary filmmakers seem like they’re guessing how laptops and smartphones work based on vague descriptions. Here, every function is precise and recognizable, and the steps that David takes are sensible to anyone who’s used social media to do some thorough stalking. This predictability is important: mystery thrillers are no fun if the audience doesn’t get a fair shot at guessing what will happen next, and “Searching” allows that chance by appealing to the familiar Internet processes of the connected age.
Constrained settings work wonders for thrillers as well. David can do little besides search for information, and when we watch that play out from a series of boxed-in screens, David’s frustration with his limits becomes our own. We share in his desperation. “Searching” innovates on its first-person vantage point by exploiting our interminable struggle with intelligent devices: the more information we let touch our fingertips, the more we realize how little we have under control. As the film trades ignorance and bliss for knowledge and horror, it grows tenser by the minute. It’s rather ingenious.
Chaganty’s decision to leave his constrained settings, then, is baffling. The third act of “Searching” expands its scope and enters the realm of news clips, including everything from interviews to helicopter footage. Though the stakes keep getting higher, the tension only diffuses—like when a horror movie cuts from a claustrophobic house to an outdoor scene in broad daylight. There are plenty of well-constructed twists and turns to keep you entertained, but the third act of “Searching” lacks what made the first two acts so special. Suddenly it’s any old thriller, just one that explains why there are cameras rolling.
Some of the twists near the end nearly close the logic window, so maybe “Searching” would be a perfect experiment if it were fifteen minutes shorter and never left the smaller screens. But it’s hard to say: this is the first time we’ve seen this kind of movie done right, and the potential moving forward is, well, thrilling. “Searching” often evokes early Hitchcock—if the genre keeps taking steps forward like this, we’ll end up with a “Psycho” for the dating app generation.