Searching Review

Searching Movie Review

There are a thousand Searching‘s in the history of both film and TNT, but none quite look and feel like the one made by director Aneesh Chaganty and starring John Cho. Some have said it’s the first film to really get the digital age. I don’t think that’s quite true. (If it was, I would be much higher on it.) It is, however, a film—maybe one of the first—to visually and aurally capture what it’s like to live in the digital age, to rely on the internet and technology in ways that are utterly desperate. That helps the film overcome both its familiarity and the crater-sized coincidences that help it reach its conclusion.

The film follows David Kim (Cho, excellent) in the aftermath of the death of his wife, Pamela (Sara Sohn). Once very outgoing and passionate about the piano, their 16-year-old daughter, Margot (Michelle La), has withdrawn to the point that her father hardly knows her, can’t name a friend of hers, and doesn’t realize she’s been blowing off piano for months and pocketing the weekly $100 he leaves to pay for her lessons. This all becomes critically important to David and a Detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing) when Margot mysteriously disappears.

David, in an effort to be of as much help to Vick and the police as he can, throws himself into his daughter’s digital life, including her Facebook friends, recent texts, and live video blogging platform called YouCast. Each uncovers a new lead—a slimy admirer, a pot dealer, a waitress in Pittsburgh—but they also fuel David’s frustration with the police and cause him to act out in unhelpful ways.

The film’s title refers to David’s use of the web to track down his daughter, but we also see the internet used as a potentially dangerous but emotionally helpful outlet for a lonely, grieving young woman. We come to understand that she doesn’t quite grasp the problems associated with placing trust in avatars with made-up names, nor does she appreciate that one can’t healthily live electronically alone. (This is a similar lesson as the one learned by Kayla in Eighth Grade.) That said, one can’t deny that this is where her happiness is, and the way this is explored in the context of an abduction mystery is what makes Searching special.

It’s also what ultimately makes the film’s final twist so unsatisfying. It removes some of that nuance from the story and turns the film back into an SVU (or something) episode. It also requires one of my least favorite mystery tropes: The lengthy explanation of everything that precedes the reveal so everyone who’s still on the hook can go, “Oh, oh, OHHHHHHH.” In Searching, this scene is even worse because Chaganty keeps to the film’s “digital” storytelling visual trope, which feels refreshing otherwise but is shoehorned in here quite awkwardly.

John Cho is outstanding as the film’s leading man. His David isn’t exactly a complicated guy, but he’s dealing with complicated, scary, tragic personal situations, and the way he responds to them is what drives the film forward. He’s not the first guy who comes to mind for a role like this, so credit Chaganty and the casting team on the film for making it work. Incidentally, it’s also nice to see an Asian-American family front and center in a film in which being Asian-American isn’t their defining characteristic.

The film could probably use another excellent performance, but isn’t not worse because Debra Messing, Michelle La, and Joseph Lee (as David’s brother) are just fine. The roles themselves are interesting, but due to the structure and style of the film, none of the actors is asked to do too much in them.

Overall, the film is a good one. It approaches greatness, but it doesn’t quite reach it. That said, it’s Chaganty’s feature film debut, and his directorial sensibility is probably the film’s best quality, which makes you excited to see what he decides to do next—especially if that film explores similar themes as this one.

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