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In Theaters: SEARCHING (2018)

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SEARCHING
(US - 2018)

Directed by Aneesh Chaganty. Written by Aneesh Chaganty and Sev Ohanion. Cast: John Cho, Debra Messing, Michelle La, Joseph Lee, Sara Sohn, Stephen Michael Eich, Briana McLean, Ric Sarabia, Dominic Hoffman. (PG-13, 102 mins)

Setting an entire film on a laptop screen isn't a new gimmick. UNFRIENDED did a better-than-expected job of pulling it off, while others, like Nacho Vigalondo's OPEN WINDOWS, start strong but fall apart by trying to ditch the hook as quickly as possible. UNFRIENDED, produced by Russian NIGHT WATCH auteur Timur Bekmambetov, wasn't perfect, but it understood that it needed to stay on the computer screen to work, so to that end, it's not surprising that Bekmambetov is a producer on SEARCHING, a tense nail-biter that takes UNFRIENDED's hook and runs with it, making something smart, substantive, immersive, and wholly engrossing. It's a one-of-a-kind film both in its execution and the way it will actually hold up on repeat viewings even after you know how it ends. It'll be just as riveting to study how the filmmakers and the editors assembled the puzzle and hooked you along the way.





Sure, SEARCHING could be told in a straightforward, narrative fashion. It is, after all, a missing persons mystery first and foremost, with widower David Kim (John Cho) not terribly concerned about his 16-year-old daughter Margot's (Michelle La) whereabouts after a Thursday night. They communicated only by text and Facetime when she was at a study group at a friend's house and said she'd be home late. They had a brief, insignificant disagreement about her forgetting to take out the trash. He falls asleep, misses three calls from her, wakes up Friday morning and assumes she's already left for school, the trash still overflowing in the kitchen. He goes to work and he grows increasingly worried over the course of the day that she isn't answering his texts. He remembers that she has piano lessons after school on Fridays and calls the instructor, who informs him that Margot cancelled her lessons six months ago--lessons for which he's been shelling out $100 a week. He gets home and notices that she never took her laptop and backpack to school. Because she never made it home Thursday night. He calls the school and is told she never showed up that morning.. After being told of an overnight Friday camping trip in which a bunch of students were cutting class to attend and that Margot was invited, his mind is at ease until he gets a hold a student who says Margot was invited to go but didn't show. He finally calls the police, where decorated Detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing) catches the case (David Googles her while he's on the phone with her), instructing David to let her do the groundwork and instead turn his focus to piecing together Margot's Thursday by seeing what her friends can tell him.


From a straight synopsis perspective, SEARCHING is a functional mystery. But director/co-writer Aneesh Chaganty, a veteran of Google's commercial department, and his writing partner and fellow USC grad Sev Ohanion keep the action entirely on a computer screen, with the actors seen in Facetime chats, webcams, YouTube videos, some dialogue conveyed in text form, and online news services providing updates in the soon-to-be-nationwide hunt for Margot. Everything we as the audience observe and learn is on the screen and in David's relentless Google searches and hacking into Margot's social media--Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Tumblr--to see that she's leading a secret life and that he doesn't know her at all (and he's not really tech-savvy with "the kids"--at one point, he's Facetiming one of Margot's friends and asks "What's a tumbler?"). There's names he's never heard, weekly $100 deposits in her bank account, and $2500 being transferred to herself via a now-closed Venmo account. Contacting her Facebook friends reveals she was an outcast who didn't have many friends at all, that she was only in the study group because the others knew she was smart. He's also told that she was only invited to the camping trip because one kid's mom felt sorry for the two of them over their loss of her mom and his wife Pam (Sara Sohn in old videos saved on David's computer), who succumbed to a long battle with lymphoma a year earlier.


From the moment SEARCHING begins, it's clear that Chaganty's film is a remarkably confident and assured debut: with no dialogue, we get a six-minute journey through the last 16 years in the life of the Kim family, all via videos, photos, messages, e-mails, changing social media platforms (they sign up on Facebook in 2007) and calendar appointments on the family computer. It's all there--happy memories, Margot's birth, her birthdays, Mother's Days, Father's Days, family outings, Margot's first days of school with each passing year, Pam's cancer diagnosis, treatment, remission, the cancer returning, a "Mom comes home!" date that keeps get bumped ahead in the onscreen planner until it's finally dragged into the trash and we see the next First Day of School photo with just Margot and David. We learn everything we need to know about this family--their dynamic, their interaction, their affection--through their lives on the computer. The filmmakers also admirably don't succumb to preachy "messages" and statement-making about the ubiquity of computers and social media, although they do skewer the online culture in the way they cleverly weave it into the fabric of the story. As news of Margot's disappearance spreads and "#FindMargot" goes viral, the case starts being tried in the court of public opinion. Soon enough, David is being harangued by trolls and mean-spirited "Father of the Year" memes for losing his daughter. Internet comments sections on news stories and Reddit are flooded with internet bullies saying cruel and horrible things about the Kim family ("The dad did it,""She's a whore," etc), and even the study group friend who says she barely knew Margot posts a teary video where she's devastated about the disappearance of her "best friend."





Never has a film of this sort used the online medium in such a smart and vividly-detailed fashion. David's frantic, dread-inducing Google searches often go by so quickly that you barely get a subliminal flash of a clue that may or may not be important. Chaganty and Oharian have you guessing from the get-go. What is Margot doing?  Is she acting out as a coping mechanism over her mother's death? Is she mad that David kept harping about the trash? Did she run away from home? Why did she recently buy a fake ID? Is she into drugs? Is she laundering money? Why did she try to call David three times? One Reddit commenter claims to be her "pimp." Why doesn't David's pothead brother Peter (Joseph Lee) seem very concerned? Does Vick know more than she's letting on? Is she keeping pertinent details from David? The red herrings and misdirection come at you from all angles and from anywhere in the frame, with at least two potential game-changing plot developments that actually produced audible gasps from the audience. There's a couple of minor quibbles that nit-pickers might not be able to get around (one that doesn't involve spoilers--don't schools call parents when kids no-show?), but SEARCHING is a marvel of intricate story construction and almost flawless execution. It doesn't back itself into corners that require a half-assed deus ex machina to get out of, and it doesn't cut corners to get where it needs to go. Anchored by a quietly powerful performance from Cho with strong support from Messing as the by-the-book cop who's methodical and clinical but still sympathetic and sharing humorous parenting stories about her own teenage son with David to keep him grounded and calm, SEARCHING got some hushed acclaim at Sundance early in 2018, where Sony acquired it for $5 million and critics who saw it wisely kept its many rewards under wraps. Don't be fooled by its Labor Day weekend dumping: this is a near-perfect thriller and one of the best films of the year. Go see this movie.

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