The Sterling Standard in Movie Reviews 

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In Search of a Daughter

John Cho
John Cho
Screen Gems
 102 Minutes
Directed by: Aneesh Chaganty
Starring: John Cho, Debra Messing  

After its misuse in a plethora of bad horror films over the last decade, the found footage gimmick has mostly disappeared from movie screens, to the delight of filmgoers everywhere. Thanks to producer Timur Bekmambetov, however, it has resurfaced in a slightly different guise, the computer screen movie, in which all the action appears to take place on a single computer screen. Not surprisingly, the first films to adopt this technique were lousy horror movies trying to generate scares by having characters so wrapped up in what was occurring onscreen that they failed to notice something deadly coming up behind them. But Bekmambetov has persevered with the technique, and his latest effort, Searching, isn't only the best computer screen film ever made, it's the best movie using any version of the found footage technique and one of the best films of the year.


The use of the computer screen point of view in Searching is not merely a gimmick. Instead, the use of computers, smartphones, social media, the internet and all the other trappings of today's digital world as a substitute for human interaction is central to the film. The movie begins with a montage of the life of 16-year-old Margot Kim (played by Michelle La as a teenager), the only child of David (John Cho) and Pamela (Sandra Sohn). Director Aneesh Chaganty (who co-wrote the script with Sev Ohanian), tells this story largely through photos and videos shot on smartphones or otherwise stored on hard drives or in the cloud. Formerly a happy family, the Kims suffer as Pamela develops cancer and dies, two years before the main action in the film starts.


As the movie proper begins, Margot tells David in a video call that she is going off to take part in a late-night study group at a classmate's house and then disappears. David isn't worried initially; he assumes she came in while he was asleep and similarly left for school in the morning. But when Margot doesn't come home after school, and a call to her piano teacher reveals that Margot hasn't been going to music lessons for months, David begins worrying. He then discovers that she called him several times late the previous night while he was asleep so that he missed her voice mail message. Finally, when David finds that Margot's laptop is still at home and none of her friends have seen her, he calls the police.


The detective in charge of the case, Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing), is quite determined to find Margot and enlists David's help. He begins by calling her social media friends, only to discover that they weren't very good friends at all and that Margot was mostly a loner at school. David and Vick find that Margot had been depositing the money he had given the girl for piano lessons into a bank account and withdrew it in the last week. Also, her car was spotted the night she disappeared on a traffic cam heading out of town. Vick's investigation soon turns into a massive manhunt, attracting considerable media attention.


At its heart, Searching is an excellent mystery, one that Agatha Christie would have enjoyed. Over and over, Chaganty takes the film in a different direction as he reveals new information, but at every step of the way, he plays fair with the audience. The clues are all there for observant viewers to spot, but they are often in the background, and most people will probably miss them. Searching is one of those films that, as a mystery, rewards a second viewing by showing just how and when Chaganty reveals the clues. The ultimate solution is a bit far-fetched, but the entire disappearance scenario is far-fetched to begin with, and the final twist simply takes a lot of what the audience already learned about Margot and extrapolates.


That character development of both Margot and David, beyond the happy nuclear family shown in the first few minutes of the movie, is what separates Searching from routine thrillers. That opening sequence rivals the beginning of Up for emotional power, but the happy father and daughter in those moments have drifted perilously apart over the following two years, so that David doesn't recognize the daughter who is gradually revealed as he searches her internet and social media history. The few candid moments the camera catches of videos that Margot posted online show a much different and far more honest version of the girl. As for David, he hasn't revealed himself before the disappearance, but the father who comes apart in many ways under pressure and blames himself is quite realistic.


Although Chaganty tries to maintain the computer screen point of view for the entire film, he occasionally cheats, with a video camera that sometimes moves from side to side as needed to capture the action, and at the end, when he expands the concept of computer screen footage to include newsreel footage and police interrogation video. But he relies less on the sort of contrivance often present in found footage films, and the result is a more focused, more crisply moving movie. The computer screen technique also re-emphasizes some of the critical plot points, such as the difference between onscreen personas and real people and, chillingly, the ease with which the wrong people can cause all sorts of havoc online. Once David, a computer savvy individual but by no means a dedicated hacker, gets Margot's laptop, he is able to access almost all her social media accounts by merely changing passwords.


However, the most significant benefit of the computer screen technique in Searching is that it allows Chaganty to incorporate numerous extreme close-ups of David and Vick as their cameras record them only a couple of feet from the computer screen. In a regular movie, audiences would never accept the use of these numerous extreme close-ups, but here, they are natural, and they allow John Cho and Debra Messing to put on an acting showcase for the cameras, in a way they never could in most movies or television shows. Cho in particular gives his best screen performance ever, and it is his tortuous discovery process that gives Searching its power.


Critics have a tendency to grade genre films somewhat more leniently than prestige pieces, which, I believe, explains how The Shape of Water won the Best Picture Oscar last year over several worthier efforts. Searching isn't just a genre film; it's a movie that incorporates a highly restrictive technique and fashions an excellent film that succeeds in no small measure because of that technique. This movie succeeds as a mystery, a character study, and an examination of human interaction in the digital age. Other films have done a bit better job looking at how the internet and social media have shaped our way of life, especially among teenagers, but none has done so in this format. Searching is one of the best films of the year.

John Cho talks about the making of Searching with Jimmy Kimmel.

Read other reviews of Searching: 

Searching (2018) on IMDb