It’s no new observation that we’re living more of our lives online, but what happens when real life events and our online activities intertwine makes for one hell of a refreshing thriller.
When you look at the typical movie release schedule for any year, it’s easy to despair at the endless stream of franchise sequels, remakes and reboots polluting big screens everywhere. Luckily there’s still a spark of originality in the old system yet, and first-time feature director Aneesh Chaganty has delivered a unique thriller in the shape of Searching.
At face value, it’s essentially the story of Margot Kim, a high-school girl that goes missing after study group one day, and her father’s efforts to discover where she went. For the first couple of acts the usual tropes are all there for this kind of film, and as things begin to unfold and the police involvement grows, it looks like things are getting a bit Gone Girl – and then the whole story turns on its head.
So far so good, but we haven’t even gotten to the central conceit of the movie yet. What sets Searching apart from the field is that it is set within and around a computer. Yes, yes, I know that Unfriended have done this setup before, but while that was a perfectly fine horror movie that just happened to have the same setting, Searching really gets creative and makes the absolute most of what a movie can do within the confines of a computer screen. I guarantee you that you’ll never hear the FaceTime ringtone without shuddering at the very least.
From the moment that Margot’s phone becomes unreachable, the tension is ramped up to 11 until the film’s climax. I’ve seen others compare the level of suspense to that of a Hitchcock movie, and while I’d hesitate to bestow that level of hyperbole (it’s a very tall order to match Hitch on suspense), director Chaganty does a damned good job.
There are some fantastic sequences throughout Searching; but the most special part has to be its opening manoeuvre. It’s reminiscent of Up in laying the foundations for the story and for the father-daughter relationship, as we find out just what happened in this girl’s life that might have led to the fateful day she didn’t come home from school. The entire movement is heartbreaking, and it’s so impressive that Chaganty and his team of editors were able to convey this with a desktop calendar and a few email updates.
Of course, a good idea and a decent story will only get you so far if you don’t have a cast to help sell it. Thankfully we have the company of John Cho as the concerned father, who has about 90% of the running time to keep us company and doesn’t waste a minute of it. Honourable mentions also go out to Debra Messing, who plays the detective assigned to the case and may be getting too invested in its outcome. Cho is the star here, though; he’s so engaging as a lead actor that it’s almost a revelatory performance – for too long he’s been relegated to a support character in big franchise outings, and of course the Harold and Kumar movie series.
In fact, Searching is a landmark movie not just because of its unique setting but also by becoming the first mainstream Hollywood thriller to have an Asian-American actor in the lead role (thanks, Wikipedia). It says a lot that this hasn’t been mentioned more in the reaction to this movie, but it’s honestly about time that we had a bit more diversity in getting actors of Asian descent into lead roles of mainstream movies.
I can honestly say that I was beyond pleasantly surprised by Searching. While the ending might have been a bit too neatly tied up for my personal liking, I had an absolute blast watching this movie. It’s a film that has no need to have as much depth as it does, and even after knowing the outcome of the mystery I can still see myself going back to this movie long after its cinematic run. That’s the sign of a great movie, when a film can justifiably be watched over and over, and I’m happy to say that this deserves to be held with such esteem. It’s great.