With the found footage film subgenre seemingly petering itself out to the point that modern audiences groan whenever a new one squeaks through, like with 2016’s Blair Witch reboot, it perhaps being fitting that it ends where it ostensibly started. But perhaps a new spiritually similar trend is taking place, one that is already being referred to as “screen life.” Whereas found footage is filmed with the aim to give the impression that a diegetic character records the happenings with a handheld camera, giving it a sense of “realism,” screen life rather has the story take place entirely on, well, a screen, a computer screen most likely. Some say it’s the next big thing, and it will be, if filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov has his way. While he hasn’t taken a crack at directing one himself, he being best known for the 2008 Angelina Jolie shoot-em-up Wanted, he did ostensibly usher in the subgenre by producing the 2015 supernatural horror film Unfriended, which just saw a sequel released this summer in the form of Unfriended: Dark Web. While this writer can’t attest to the latter, I thought the former was perfectly decent shlock horror, playing into its absurd premise of taking place almost entirely on a Skype call by turning into basically a blood-drenched reality show. Well, before anyone even knew it was a thing, it would seem Bekmambetov is at it again with Searching, this time taking the mystery-thriller route as it invites the audience on a rousing adventure of pointing and clicking. And while you may have read that last sentence with a hint of sarcasm – maybe a little; the concept is an easy target – the end result really is nothing short of rousing. If settling for a horror approach to screen life kept Unfriended amusing, Searching perfects it by simply making everything that appears onscreen – literally – matter. And it doesn’t hurt that it’s got the incomparable John Cho anchoring the proceedings with a truly understated performance. The end result being a thoroughly engrossing pro-technology – surprisingly – bit of masterclass storytelling, easily propelling it to the best of what 2018 has to offer.
In Searching, single father David Kim (John Cho) begins to worry about the well-being of his fifteen-year-old daughter Margot (Michelle La) when she fails to attend school one day and return home from her piano lesson that afternoon. Concerned, David calls around and is relieved to learn she was invited to go on a camping trip but didn’t inform him. However, the next morning it is revealed that Margot never went, and her whereabouts are currently unknown. Now a missing-persons case, David is put into contact with Detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing), who has been assigned to Margot’s case. While Vick propels her own investigation, she tasks David with using whatever means he has as a parent to find leads among the educational community. Using Margot’s laptop to cull information, David uses whatever social media profiles she has to create a narrative. Yet, the more he reads and the more he speaks with her peers, David soon begins to realize how little he really knows his daughter, their relationship having grown distant in the years following the death of his wife and her mother Pamela (Sara Sohn). Nevertheless, David must persist, even when it appears less and less likely that Margot ran away, and more and more likely she may be in genuine danger, or worse.
So while one may aptly call what the Unfriended movies are doing a “gimmick,” that does not apply here. And mostly that’s because setting every frame in a window on some other device is simply the easiest way to tell this story of technological deception and intrigue. Sure, this could have gone the vigilante route and turned David manic á la Hugh Jackman in Prisoners, but by just taking an alternate and unseen route, the film has so much more to offer audiences. There’s always that trope whereby a narrative uses a news broadcast for instance as an easy way to convey exposition – as if every single movie character watches the news – but committing to its technological format frees up the storytelling so much that the limits are virtually endless. Just by having multiple tabs open at once, we can watch as David scrolls through Facebook feeds, Tumblr profiles, and even score his own movie by listening to classical music in the background. One could call it passive storytelling, but that would be a disservice to just how clever it all is. Not only does the audience get to watch as David collects information, the audience gets to participate, and play detective along with him. And yeah, the movie is keenly aware of this, so plenty leads will wind up to be red herrings, but that’s to be expected in such an engaging game of back and forth between both parties. Aside from that, that’s probably as best as I can explain it; it has to be seen to be believed. And in a theatre, by the way, because you won’t get nearly the same experience watching it from home as this is a movie that demands your attention. You probably wouldn’t think that a two-minute uncut scene of the protagonist going from email to email trying to recover passwords would be so compelling, but here we are.
You will never truly know just what kind of angle this movie is going for, be it searing, dark thriller or light family drama, but the fact that it doesn’t commit to any single camp and instead stay true to the characterizations is perhaps its wisest choice. When so often archetypes are utilized to middling effect to the point where the viewer could hardly care less about the people involved, Searching does the exact opposite, making it so that were it to end on a down note – and I’m not saying either way if it does – it would legitimately ruin your day. We care about David and Margot from the get-go, the movie opening with a tearjerking montage that rivals the likes of the first five minutes of Up. And the fact that John Cho delivers perhaps the greatest performance of his career does not hurt one bit. We ache with him as he fervently works his way to finding Margot whatever the cost. And kudos also goes to Debra Messing here, as she enters the kind of dramatic range one wouldn’t expect from someone best known for Will & Grace.
Yet, it’s perhaps the mystery element of the film that keeps it so riveting. You will kick yourself for missing the important clues, and if you find yourself that invested, something must’ve gone right. Seriously, even by the point the twist had sprung and I had a pretty good notion of where it would go from there, I was still on the edge of my seat. Oftentimes, telling a story on the big screen is just a magic trick, and the real trick is simply to get the viewer to forget that it’s a trick, and that’s exactly what happens here. If you stopped to think about it, the story might suffer some gaps in logic or at the very least verisimilitude, but you’re not apt to realize it during. This is storytelling at its finest, both convincing and affecting, with nary a single shot or plot point extraneous or glaring. Never has a cinematic mystery been so enthralling since 2014’s Gone Girl – which, now that I think about it could’ve been the title for this one too – and even Searching has a lot more going for it down the stretch.
Having now seen just over a hundred films on the year – what the hell am I doing with my life – I’ve now got Searching as my number two behind only Hereditary. This is masterclass filmmaking here, people, and not one you would want to miss. Especially if this really does become what breaks the mold in the burgeoning screen life subgenre. Stop what you are doing right now and go see this movie. Right now.
Final Score: 10/10