Along with BlacKkKlansman, Searching was my most-anticipated film of August. An intense, gripping trailer combined with a stylish presentation and a lot of buzz coming out of Sundance made this one the one to see on opening weekend. I’ve also liked star John Cho since my first exposure to him in ABC’s “Flashforward” television series (sorry, Harold & Kumar fans. I’ve never seen any of those films) and this seemed like a completely different role for him in which he’s attempting to branch out beyond comedy (his turn in “Flashforward” had a comedic touch, even if the show was a drama) and try something new. I respect that and there was really no reason to not be excited for this film.
Yet, I had no idea just how excited I truly should have been. As is often for the best, the premise is a simple one: When sixteen-year-old Margot (Michelle La) goes missing, her father David (Cho) joins forces with police detective Vick (Debra Messing) in launching an investigation to desperately try to bring his daughter home. But, while the premise is simple, the film, itself is not. Sure, the surface narrative is easy enough to navigate and, should the viewer choose to leave it at that, it will be more than enough. But director/co-writer Aneesh Chaganty goes far beyond the obvious and stuffs his film full with subtext and intelligence, ensuring that even the most seasoned and jaded moviegoer will be dragged along on an exorbitantly thrilling ride.
The film is told entirely through the perspective of a laptop screen. This isn’t the first film to use this storytelling gimmick, and I highly doubt it will be the last. Popularized (though, again, not originated) by the Unfriended horror franchise (find the review to the sequel, Dark Web, here), this storytelling approach will likely become more and more prevalent as society continues to live increasingly more of their daily life on the Internet. Art imitates life and we are living our lives online. Up until now, as far as I know, this style has only been used in horror. Chaganty employs it well, here, though, and uses it in such a way that it’s not simply a gimmick but a reflection of the film’s themes and message.
I can’t be too specific regarding what I love about this film (which is actually everything) because I don’t want to ruin your experience of seeing this film for the first time. I’ll say that, in addition to being a compelling mystery, the film also serves as the best commentary on the downsides to Internet culture since last year’s Ingrid Goes West. So often, one hears that you can’t trust who you meet online. And, often, that’s absolutely true. But over half the time, the reality is the opposite: people feel confident being exactly who they are when they’re online because they feel there are no consequences. Chaganty addresses both sides of this issue with dexterity, insight, and even a touch of genius, using the film’s format to make the ironic point that, as David scours social media for clues into Margot’s disappearance, he discovers more about her than he ever knew in the so-called “real world”.
But, again, even if one doesn’t think too hard about all of that subtext, the film is a gripping, emotional, entertaining, challenging, brilliant, believable thriller that might have now taken the top spot as my favorite movie mystery of all-time. I can’t think of one that compares. Chaganty plays with all of the conventions and tropes that audiences are used to seeing in this genre and stays six steps ahead at all times. At one point, I thought I was about to turn on the film because I was under the impression that a huge cliché that I absolutely loathe (and has been overused in recent years) was about to be adopted as a major plot reveal. Then, the realization came that I had been swerved and manipulated. I have never been so relieved while watching a movie in my life, as I had been enjoying it so much up to that point and I could now take a deep breath and continue to do so. I also gained respect for Chaganty in the moment, as well, for not taking the easy road and for pulling one over on me. Nicely done.
I wrote several more sentences to follow up on that last paragraph, but I erased them. I’ve said enough about the story. You simply have to go and experience it for yourself. (I’m so afraid of saying too much that I’m even struggling to find pictures to include because I know some of you are capable of reading into them.) It’s a difficult film, at times. Anyone who has a child or a niece or a nephew or anyone of the sort will be forced to imagine themselves in this situation and it isn’t easy. But stop looking for “easy”. The artistry at play here makes it worth the challenge; take my word for it. Not the least of that artistry is Cho’s performance. He nails the big moments but, as I often say, the big moments are the least challenging. It’s in the small nuances where he truly excels. He is tasked with carrying nearly the entire film on his own and he does so with class and with style. You will feel his pain and you will be rooting for David and Margot.
It’s funny that I’ve seen two mysteries in two days. Yesterday’s was acceptable enough but ultimately bland and devoid of any true sense of urgency or any palpable intelligence. And then today’s is probably the best I’ve ever seen, dragging the audience around from one revelation to the next without ever insulting them or asking them to suspend any significant disbelief. Any questions I posed to myself as I watched were all answered by the end and always in ways that made sense. Heck, even the questions I hadn’t thought to pose were answered. Chaganty put his entire heart and mind into getting this one right.
And get it right, he did. Unquestionably, he did. This is a rare example of filmmaking perfection – a film capable of connecting with and engaging absolutely anyone from any walk of life and then presenting an authentic and harrowing narrative, substantive characters with sensible motivations, poignant and thought-provoking subtext, interesting and realistic dialogue, and high-octane entertainment value, to top it off. And if you aren’t feeling something emotional at the end (whether good or bad), you’re heartless.
This is why I love the movies. Searching captivated me mentally, emotionally, and even physically. I am actually begging you to go out and support this film. Please. Justify it however you wish. You like mysteries? There are none better. You want to support the second film currently in theaters that features Asian leads? Prove it by not just seeing the big one. You like Cho or Messing? They’re both great. Whatever your reasons, just go. Drive a little bit, if you have to. Get lunch or dinner. Make a day of it. No matter what needs to happen, if you profess to be any sort of true film lover (or even liker), put your money where your mouth is and support. This. Film. Today. It’s the best of the year, so far, and I don’t say that lightly.
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