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Movie Review: ‘Searching’ Achieves Intimacy Through Screen-Based Storytelling

CREDIT: Sebastian Baron/Screen Gems

Starring: John Cho, Debra Messing, Michelle La, Joseph Lee

Director: Aneesh Chaganty

Running Time: 102 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Angry Outbursts and References to Patterns of Illegal Behavior

Release Date: August 24, 2018 (Limited)/Expands Nationwide August 31, 2018

If a movie is going to have a form-busting structure, it is probably best if its story works on its own merits regardless of the filmmaking style, unless the format is so unusual that audiences don’t even know how to process it. Searching is not the first film to be told entirely on computer screens, nor is it even the first from producer Timur Bekmambetov. This is just the latest in his “Screenlife” series, following in the innovative footsteps of Unfriended and its sequel, Unfriended: Dark Web. Searching is the story of widowed father David Kim (John Cho) desperately looking for his missing teenage daughter Margot (Michelle La), and it is compelling enough on its own beyond its medium-within-a-medium approach. But its unique structure proves to be an ingenious method for plumbing characters’ psychology.

Much of Searching is about David coming to terms with the fact that he may not have known his daughter as well as he thought he did. This is a phenomenon that many, perhaps all, parents experience at some point, but rarely under such tragic circumstances. Talking him through much of this crisis is Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing), the case’s lead detective, who assures David that there are always secrets between even the closest of loved ones. It’s a lesson worth keeping in mind for any viewers trying to suss out the twist to come when the truth is revealed, and it also illuminates what the Screenlife form can achieve. In one early scene, before David knows for sure that Margot is truly missing, he composes an angry text message to her … and then deletes and replaces it with something much more civil. The intimacy granted to viewers by seeing David’s process is on the same level of that between the reader and narrator of a novel.

One of Searching‘s major charms is its heavy use of outdated technology, not in terms of fetishization but rather the stasis typical of suburban parents. The opening montage features David and his wife keeping track of Margot’s early years on their new Windows XP computer. Cut to the present day, and David is still using a now decade-and-a-half-old operating system. It still runs perfectly fine, so there is no reason to be a consumerist shill and insist that he make an upgrade. But sticking to this routine is indicative of how he goes about his personal life as well. The nature of his quality time spent with Margot has not changed much since his wife died. But their relationship needs to change, because she is almost an adult and they need to talk to each other about how the loss of Mom has affected both of them. Searching does not take a stance on whether the domination of screens in modern society is a net positive or negative, but by thoroughly examining how much we document on computers, it demonstrates how valuable it is to occasionally keep track of those records.

Searching is Recommended If You Like: The Fugitive, Law & Order, Organizing Photos on Your Computer

Grade: 4 out of 5 File Folders

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