For most of director Aneesh Chaganty’s debut film, the 2018 thriller Searching, we’re looking at close-ups of John Cho’s face. The emotional gauntlet that he runs while looking for his missing daughter is the focus of the film, so that’s not too surprising, but what sets the film apart is the context of these shots– the entire film takes place from the point of view of computer screens. Searching isn’t the first film to attempt this kind of style (the horror sequel Unfriended: Dark Web came out just a couple months previously, after all), but it is probably the most cinematic– the story takes place across multiple computers and at least one phone, there are montages, intercutting, zooms, a musical score, and no “found footage” gimmick or framing device to explain why we’re seeing what we’re seeing. Searching is classically cinematic in the way it functions, and that left me with some questions about whether its key moments are rendered more or less effective because of how the director chose to tell the story.
From its opening montage and throughout the entire film, it’s clear that Searching is trying to engage the audience’s emotions above all else. The use of computer screens to tell the story is a good framework for a solidly constructed mystery because it makes scenes where the main character sifts through information looking for clues a lot more visually interesting and allows information to be laid out cleanly, but that doesn’t feel like the main reason the film took this route. Aneesh Chaganty immediately makes it clear that his film takes place within computers and phones as an attempt to connect us to the emotional state of the main characters. The opening scene taking us through memories on an old family computer is designed to evoke nostalgia, but it’s also immersive in its familiarity and casual intimacy, setting us up to feel central character David Kim’s emotions along with him as the story progresses– we’re seeing his life as he’s chosen to document it, and the emotions he assigns to different people and events in his life.
With this viewpoint established, the movie remains gripping as the story progresses. Chaganty juggles lots of visual information with great skill, and as David becomes more and more distressed in the search for his daughter, we’re privy to what that looks like inside his head. Where the movie really shines, though, is how it also unveils to us the inner life of the missing girl, David’s daughter Margot (played in a multilayered, excellent performance by Michelle La). In a more conventional telling of this story, Margot might remain more of a goal than a character, with David’s emotions centered throughout– a Missing Daughter Movie about a father’s righteous pain. Instead, this film goes for something much more nuanced in the scenes where David investigates Margot’s laptop. If David’s computer is a window into his mind, a way for us to see the parts of himself he doesn’t demonstrate to the other characters, Margot’s computer serves the same function. The focus of the film shifts away from just his pain, and gradually into the inner life of a daughter he never actually knew. This is where the film gains its true power.
A conventionally-structured film would have no real reason to dip into Margot’s inner life or her past leading up to the disappearance, and if it did, it would need to do so by taking focus completely away from her father. This film manages to get both of their most emotional moments onscreen at the same time, with David being confronted by his daughter’s heartfelt video blogs and conversations with online friends, expressing viewpoints and feelings he wasn’t open to hearing when she was around. In one extraordinary sequence, he stumbles across a video she had previously taken of him, in a moment where she needed him to open up and he was unable to. It’s powerful stuff, illuminating her emotional needs at the same time as her father’s weaknesses and shortcomings. It turns a movie that could have easily zeroed in on one character’s pain into a nuanced two-hander, an examination of what the main character did to bring about the conflict of the film as well as his journey to resolve it.
In this central way, Searching is uniquely excellent at showcasing the emotional journeys of its characters in a way other films might have trouble doing. There are other aspects, though, where it seems more distant and less intense than it might have been. Most of the violent or intense moments in the story take place off-screen, and when we do see them they have a removed, objective quality that feels different from the rest of the film. When David begins to go full vigilante and tracks down an internet troll who brags about his supposed involvement in Margot’s disappearance, we see their in-person confrontation in the form of a YouTube video, and an almost-comedic smash cut to David’s bruised face afterward. In any other similar film, this would be an intense scene, but the film kind of deflates it. Later on, a video buffering error pauses a climactic confrontation at a crucial moment to create tension, before cutting away to the aftermath in a fairly anti-climactic way. These moments keep the audience on their toes, but they also result in a lack of really propulsive moments of the kind I tend to expect in a movie like this. There’s nothing wrong with the techniques used, but often in the back half of the film we end up catching up with characters after the most intense things have occurred, which takes the kick out of the proceedings somewhat.
At its heart, though, Searching stays compelling. Even in these aftermath scenes, where the moments of deeply intense anxiety and physical struggle are out of our grasp, Chaganty and his cast concentrate on bringing the emotion of the scene forward. This is a clever mystery, a well-constructed one, and technically it’s really more of a detective film than a thriller, but the impressive thing about it is that it never becomes too caught up in clues or minutiae. Whenever a new plot development occurs, the first priority is how it affects the characters. Regardless of any techniques used in the movie and how well they might work or not, this sense of intention is the most important thing. This is an intensely emotional story from start to finish, and it’s told that way very purposefully, so even when we become removed from the action, the movie never loses much steam. It doesn’t always have the propulsive energy the audience might expect from a thriller, but when it comes to depicting the inner lives of its characters, Searching does a tremendous job.