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‘Searching’ is a dramatic tale of a father looking for his daughter, told via screens

John Cho stars in "Searching" as a frantic father searching his missing daughter's computer for clues. (Screen Gems)
By Katie Walsh, Tribune News Service
Monday 27 August 2018 04.57

Perhaps Searching would feel more revolutionary had Unfriended: Dark Web not been so recently released. The two films take for their conceit and style the reality that these days, we live our lives online, and therefore, the entirety of the cinematic experience never leaves the computer screen. While the Unfriended series applies the technique to B-movie horror frights, Searching, directed by Aneesh Chaganty and written by Chaganty and Sev Ohanian, attempts to elevate it to something more sophisticated: a dramatic thriller, the story of a man looking for his missing daughter.

David Kim (John Cho), a widower in San Jose, Calif., has a tenuous relationship with his daughter Margot (Michelle La), a hardworking high school sophomore. Both are caught up in their own pools of grief after the death of Margot’s mother, Pam, outlined in a dialogue-free opening sequence reminiscent of the tragic opening of Pixar’s Up. A life and a death are detailed on a computer screen: photos and calendar dates and videos detailing her decline.

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David and Margot are tethered via technology, but one day, Margot’s digital presence slowly fades away, until it’s not just a dead battery or bad reception but a missing person. The search for Margot is on, as David becomes increasingly frantic, combing her computer for any clues about where his daughter might be, and more importantly, who she is.

The acting required for a film that primarily takes place on FaceTime and YouTube is of the casual, lived-in variety. There’s no projecting for the back of the house into a webcam, and it’s a tough balance to achieve for a performer, who has to inhabit and express all the emotions in a completely natural and organic way. Fortunately, Cho is up to the task of carrying a film that requires him to authentically emote into a MacBook camera.

That’s not so with his co-star, Debra Messing, who plays Det. Vick, leading the investigation. Whether seated at a desk video chatting with David, or frantically FaceTiming when they discover a new clue, one can feel Messing effortfully Acting with a capital A, rather than naturalistically performing the interactions a police detective would have with tech.

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It’s a standard missing person story, but the use of technology demonstrates how we’re at once constantly connected in a way that allows us to be entirely disconnected. Who needs face-to-face time when there’s FaceTime? Photos can be manipulated or applied to other narratives. Technology allows us to see everything, and also nothing, if the story is twisted in the right way.

What’s bone chilling about Searching is how it lays out the way the truth can be right in front of us. We just have to be willing to look, and to see it. The film takes the audience on a wild ride of twists and turns; images and words can be manipulated into multiple competing truths.

But the film does take a few too many turns on its journey. The end feels rushed, outlandish and possibly even reshot, destroying the apparent timeline of the entire film with a few lines, and upending all suspension of disbelief. It’s clearly intended to leave us feeling okay, rather than filled with dread, but it’s a hackneyed and obvious attempt to make the film something that it’s not. For all the interesting ideas and slick execution that Searching raises, it’s a disappointment that it doesn’t stick to its guns.

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