Movie Review – Searching

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EXPECTATIONS: A crafty thriller that improves on its similar stylistic predecessors like Unfriended, The Den and Open Windows.

REVIEW: It is quite amusing to think that we have many films released over the years, regardless of genre, that span across many imaginative worlds, planets, fantasy settings and so on. With the vast amount of superhero films and blockbusters, it’s hard not to see why.

But the world that has not been mined more than enough, despite the great films we have made from it, is the world wide web. Such ingenuity can be extracted from such a setting that we can have great films like The Social Network, Catfish, Unfriended, The Den and so on, it is mindboggling to think that this isn’t done more often.

But what’s even more mindboggling is that is that the new upcoming thriller, Searching, is that this is the first Hollywood mainstream thriller to feature an Asian-American in the lead. It’s puzzling enough that we rarely have focus on Asian-American families on-screen but the fact above…wow.

And speaking of a potential wow, we have a new technological cyber-thriller from feature debut director Aneesh Chaganty, which has been gathering some critical buzz since its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival. With established actors (John Cho, Debra Messing) and rising talent (Michelle La), will Searching hit that wow factor?

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After David Kim (John Cho)’s 16-year-old daughter, Margot (Michelle La) goes missing, a local investigation is opened and Detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing) is assigned to the case. But 37 hours later and without a single lead, David decides to search the one place no one has looked yet, where all secrets are kept today: his daughter’s laptop.

Where her social life on the world wide web becomes an illuminating rabbit hole that goes deeper and deeper. And with a limited amount of time, David must trace his daughter’s digital footprints before she disappears forever.

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One of the major positives that makes Searching work is how writer/director Aneesh Chaganty and co-writer Sev Ohanian really attacked the material with a lot of verisimilitude, using the exact sounds and layouts of the programs like Skype, YouTube and Mac programs, and it really adds to the gripping storytelling. Even the video freezes and sound lags are used to great effect, adding to the atmosphere and immersion.

Also adding to the storytelling is the acts of the characters on how they use technology. One example is how a character would start typing a message and then erase it and change it completely. That is a clever bit of storytelling that adds much-needed character development and is realistic within people’s use of technology. There is even some very ingenious foreshadowing for eagle-eyed viewers, if they notice fast enough on side-windows and browsers, which adds to the replay value.

Another example is how these characters think they are invincible behind anonymity, thinking they can get away with their bad deeds, but when their secrets are revealed, we know more about the characters. The progression between their anonymity and clarity is scary since again, it stems from reality. The film even drives the point of internet addiction into the tale (i.e, not resisting opening e-mails, many tabs on the internet browser) and it sells the premise quite well as it alleviates supposed plot holes.

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Next comes the great performances. John Cho, who has always been an understated actor in indie dramas like Columbus, Gemini and even the Harold and Kumar films. But in the case of Searching, he has his first leading role in a Hollywood thriller (To reinstate, any Asian-American actor for that matter) and he does a fantastic job.

Cho makes the character progression from grieving single father to obsessive investigator to a man driven with simmering rage look smooth and effortless. In one particular scene, his character goes from being aggressive to conflicted and eventually collapsing to the fetal position and it is a compelling gut-punch to witness and Cho really nails it.

The other two leads, Debra Messing and newcomer Michelle La also give great performances that are nuanced and convincing in portraying the hidden depths of their characters. La in particular, has the harder task mainly due to her limited screen-time and Chaganty’s attempt to skew one’s perception of her character, but the moments when she’s on-screen (particularly during the live-broadcast moments) is where she positively stands out.

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As for the film’s glitches flaws, Chaganty does veer towards sentimentality at times. It particularly becomes prevalent when he relies on the musical score by Torin Borrowdale, which is quite jarring considering that the film takes place on technological screens, despite having some leeway in showing Cho’s character listening to peaceful music from YouTube.

Some restraint would have also been beneficial as to how much Chaganty and cinematographer Juan Sebastian Baron tend to zoom in/out of the screens to telegraph the drama or hint towards revelations, although it is understandable that it is done to cater to those in the audience that are not computer-literate. And there are the plot contrivances that pile up during the third act when the revelations and character reveals come into place (eg. how is it that this specific character was able to accomplish all that in that short amount of time.) that detract the plausibility of the situation.

Overall, with clever and immersive storytelling thanks to its creative use of the technological angle of the internet, great performances, rich characterizations, surprising twists and ample amounts of food for thought, director Aneesh Chaganty has made a great feature debut with Searching, and I can’t wait to see what he’ll come up with next.

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This review can be also seen at THE AU REVIEW. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: John Cho, Debra Messing, Joseph Lee, Michelle La, Sara Sohn
Director: Aneesh Chaganty
Screenwriters: Aneesh Chaganty, Sev Ohanian

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