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‘Searching’ Review: John Cho anchors a smart internet thriller

Searching
John Cho stars in Screen Gems' thriller SEARCHING.
 

If there were any justice in this world, John Cho would have been given a thriller franchise in, say, 2009 or so, and he would be currently battling The Rock at the box office for the title of “Most Profitable Hollywood Superstar.” I’ve always admired Cho’s everyman qualities — his sense of duty in something like the Abrams Star Trek films, his humor in the Harold and Kumar trilogy, his affability in the cancelled-much-too-quickly ABC sitcom Selfie — and his particular skillset seemed primed for the spotlight in an alternate, much less racist Hollywood out there in some parallel universe.

But, given the success of Crazy Rich Asians at the multiplex and Cho’s swell turns in some solid films earlier this year like Aaron Katz’ Gemini, that might soon change. He’s in top form in Aneesh Chaganty’s screen-captured thriller Searching as a grieving father who discovers that his daughter is missing, and the film garnered acclaim back at Sundance earlier this year. While it’s not as good as its rabid fans might make it out to be, Searching is still an intelligent and interesting use of digital life as genre fodder, even if it’s a bit too on the nose.

Searching begins with a montage that’s Up-like in its peaks and valleys, documenting the family life of the Kims — father David (Cho), mother Pamela (Sara Sohn) and daughter Margot (Michelle La, amongst other child performers) — from Windows XP all the way through OSX High Sierra, from elementary through high school, through Pamela’s cancer diagnosis and her eventual passing. The main action starts near the end of Margot’s junior year of high school, as both father and daughter are struggling in the aftermath of Pamela’s death. Margot goes to a study group one night, and tells her father she’ll be there all night. David doesn’t think too much about it, and goes to sleep. While he’s resting, Margot calls three times in what seems like a panic, but David doesn’t wake up to answer her. When he tries to call her or text her the next morning, she doesn’t answer or respond, and he begins to worry about her even more when he finds out she skipped school that day, and that she’s cancelled her piano lessons over the last several months and pocketed the money for her own use. His fears are briefly assuaged by a classmate’s mother telling him that Margot’s with her son on a trip to the Mountains with their friends, but the kids return without her. It’s then that David calls the police and meets Detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing), who attempts to help him find his daughter. What the two will uncover will change their lives forever.

 

So there’s a solid foundation for a story there, and both Cho and Chaganty do their absolute best to make it mean something. There are a number of effective moments that place us in David’s headspace — such as a brief pause when he logs into his wife’s old computer to look for Margot’s old best friend’s home phone number and notices desktop’s background, set to a picture of three of them in happier times — and these scenes never once feel maudlin or manipulative. Likewise, his cluelessness about youth internet culture isn’t totally played for Homer Simpson-style laughs (though his reactions to finding out his daughter has a “tumbler” come close), and his reactions to discovering his daughter’s inner life — made concrete by her online presence on that blogging platform as well as a live-streaming site — are full of fascinating pathos Cho brings a weary sadness to David that manifests itself chiefly in how he talks to Margot: he’s distant, unable to totally tell her how he feels or listen to her problems, and he’s somewhat of a scold as well, chastising her for keeping the trash in the house when it’s her responsibility to take it out. His dissolution into panic and mania is organic, assisted by the darkened circles under the actor’s eyes, and the film’s ultimate resolution is potent enough to make more than one member of my audience cry.

But in his attempts to expand his scope and stand out from the rest of the “Screenlife” crowd, Chaganty runs into a bevy of problems, ones akin to those from the more ambitions Found Footage movies near the end of that subgenre’s lifecycle. His usage of time is perhaps the most successful at first, with that heart-wrenching montage of Margot’s childhood and her mother’s illness being intensely upsetting as well as a solid depiction of how technology evolves and changes over the course of one’s life in the modern world, but it runs into a problem narratively when it attempts to document David’s quest to find his daughter. Everything feels oddly compressed, and I was stunned to find out that nearly a week had passed by the time the film’s main story had come to a close.

The various devices used throughout are an accurate-enough way to capture the action, but sort of like Chronicle a few years back, eventually the film finds a way to depict certain scenes in an almost typical cinematic fashion, most blatantly during a second-act fight between David and a person whom he suspects of kidnapping his daughter. This whole action scene is caught on a series of hidden cameras and is cut together judiciously, which sort of robs us of the pretense that the film’s gimmick is going for.

However, the worst miscalculation Chaganty made in formulating Searching was that his audience would want both heavy editing and guided on-screen close-ups to direct them to what they should be looking for at any given moment. It’s a bit frustrating to be seeing the screen from David’s eyes or from the eyes of an unknown observer watching footage on Youtube, when we could be gleaning the same information from a passive observation of his screen activity, much like in the Unfriended films. Worse, it keeps us from being sleuths ourselves, which is part of the fun of these things, and it limits our perspectives in a way that feels inauthentic.

It’s sad, too, given how truthfully Chaganty treats the relationship between David and Margot in the film — there are shades of Bo Burnham’s summer smash Eighth Grade there that are just a bit more sympathetic to the plight of the tech-illiterate father — and how that truth informs both David’s and our fears about Margot, even if it ultimately lands with a bit of a thud in the form of a third act twist so small-minded and dumb that it nearly wrecks the narrative’s plausibility all together.

Still, Searching is well worth your time, for the truths that it does find in our digital age predicaments are smartly rendered and capably acted by Cho and company. It may not be as ground-breaking as the first Unfriended was back in 2015 or as devilishly entertaining and well-crafted as the soon-to-be-released Cam or Unfriended: Dark Web, but it should give every parent worth their salt in this country a much-needed heart attack about what their kids are up to online. You might want to smash every phone in your home, after it’s all said and done, but that might not be a bad thing, after all.

Featured image by Sebastian Baron via Sony Pictures.