Searching Review: The concept almost masks the hackneyed plot
The happenings in this film that involves a plethora of screens, keep the audience away from their pocket screens
Cinema is a democratic medium and like in every thriving democracy, change is what keeps the machinery running smoothly. From silent films to talkie, black and white cinema to colour and even the expansion from the regular two-dimensional viewing experience, filmmakers have always found new ways to tell their story. Debutant director Aneesh Chaganty employs one such way in his film, Searching. He decides to use the point of view of smartphones, computer and television screens, CCTV camera and hidden camera footage to tell the story of a missing daughter and a frantic father who tries his best to figure out her whereabouts using her digital footprints.
Cast: John Cho, Debra Messing, Michelle La
Director: Aneesh Chaganty
The film begins with a wonderful usage of the Up template -- the condensing of a sweet story into a 5-10 minute montage sequence that sets up the remainder of the film. The story of the close-knit Kim family, consisting of David, Pamela and their daughter Margot, closely follows the technological advancement during that period. We see Margot being born at the time of Windows XP. When Margot learns her piano lessons, we are introduced to eBay. Every landmark in the Kim family reintroduces us to our first memories of Internet Explorer, unstoppable pop-up windows, Google and Facebook. And much like Up, a character is written off for the film to start on its intended path. Pamela (Sara Sohn), the mother, is diagnosed with Lymphoma and despite remission, falls into a relapse and dies just before Margot enters high school. It's the phase of an American teenager's life where Hollywood has enforced the belief that there is potential for everything to go wrong. And, it does.
John Cho brilliantly portrays David, a single dad who is at his wit's end as he delves into the internet persona of his daughter (an effective Michelle La), and is completely flummoxed by how little he knows about her. It is interesting how the writers, Aneesh and Sev Ohanian, have not used social media and internet as a villain to show the growing disconnect between the father and daughter. They stay clear of painting technology as the bad guy and instead draw attention to how fickle internet personas can be. The writers are clear about saying people are the ones at fault, not the technology, but it definitely is an enabler of sorts.
Searching is a concept-based film and has its share of pitfalls that come with trying to stick to the sub-genre. However, what works best for the film is the performance of Cho. Especially in the scenes with investigating officer Detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing), there is a sense of vulnerability that effectively gets portrayed even in the pixelated screens of a CCTV camera footage. Widely touted as the first mainstream Hollywood thriller with an Asian American in the lead, it also helps that the role is written by an Indian. Certain nuances in Cho's character feels more relatable than the stock Asian characters that Hollywood churns out. Here's an Asian dad who isn't at ease with technology, a dad who wants to type long drawn messages to his daughter but sticks to generic replies, a dad who makes cringe-worthy 'dad' jokes, but also reprimands the daughter for forgetting to take out the trash.
The major drawback of this film is that the 'concept' leads to convenient but artificial plot developments. For example, David using facetime for every phone call he ever makes in the film gets too monotonous. We want to allow the director some leeway because he is trying something new, but suspension of disbelief needs to happen naturally and not as an afterthought or an act of empathy. While the overall writing is laudable, the final act is a dampener and almost derails the ride. The proverbial twist in Searching isn't exactly a revelation, but isn't too lazy either.
The missing daughter-searching father trope has been almost copyrighted by the Taken franchise and the plot of Searching isn't much different either. It is Liam Neeson's Taken set within the confines of the virtual world.
While watching Taken, we know almost immediately that daddy Liam will save the day. However, in Searching, Cho's measured performance makes the sentiment of 'will he save his daughter' overcome the gimmick of the how the film is made.
Aneesh took to Twitter to persuade people to watch Searching. Among many things, he said, "See it to set a precedent. Because, when you see the film, you are telling the executives who have the final say in which movies get made, that these are the kinds of bets they should be taking."
The earnestness of Searching and the sheer ingenuity despite its gaping loopholes has ensured that even if the film doesn't open floodgates, it does create a noticeable crack in the dam that holds the repository of new ideas that will push the envelopes of filmmaking.