Who knows the real you better— your parents, or your Instagram/Facebook/Twitter followers?
A captivating social thriller about familial relations and the underbellies of the Internet age, Aneesh Chaganty’s SEARCHING tells the story of David Kim (helmed by an impressive and completely relatable performance by John Cho) and his sometimes-distant teenage daughter, Margot, who fails to return home after a night out at a study group. When a concerned David begins to panic and files a missing persons report, Detective Vick (played by a sometimes awkward Debra Messing) is assigned to the case, and suggests that David should hop on Margot’s laptop — in order to contact her possible friends and acquaintances, as well as to view her recent website browser visits, in order to gather possible evidence of her whereabouts. As the film’s tagline cleverly hints at, David will never be able to find his daughter until he understands who she truly was in the first place.
An effective opening sequence — which takes the audience through a touching 10-minute or so montage of nostalgic pictures, video clips, emails, calendar appointments, and text conversations — shows that the Kim family dynamic is loving and close-knit, but not without tragedy. As we watch the deeply personal pieces of their lives that they store on their computers, we also see that David’s wife Pam was battling cancer, and had ultimately lost her battle a couple years prior to the events in the film.
Similar to other 2018 marvels A Quiet Place and Hereditary, SEARCHING, at its heart of hearts, is a narrative about the all-too-often disconnect between parents and children — especially during moments of post-tragedy, in which some family members struggle with expressing their grief and emotions, while other family members crave more open communication. While we watch David rifle through Margot’s many vlogs and Tumblr posts (which he, in a very dad-like way, assumes is spelled “Tumbler”) we see Margot’s visible pain in one video, as she recalls her late mother’s would-be birthday to her “YouCast” video subscribers, hoping that David would bring the subject up so they could talk about it. Instead, we see David awkwardly come into her room and remind her that The Voice television show is coming on soon — completely missing the opportunity and avoiding the topic whatsoever.
What makes first-timer Aneesh Chaganty’s direction of SEARCHING so impactful is that he is completely in touch with 2018 reality. While past films that have solely used technology screens for storytelling purposes felt slightly gimmicky (like Unfriended) SEARCHING hits a chord with audiences not only because of its sheer empathy for its characters, but also because of its “Wow, my mom/dad has sent me a text like that before too” moments, as well as its relevant themes of seeking comfort in communicating with strangers via social media sites, hidden identities behind user profile names, withdrawing into oneself, and the phoniness of certain social media robots who lust for likes, views, and attention. SEARCHING smartly broadens its net with the inclusion of not only activity on laptop screens, but also FaceTime calls, video surveillance, live video streaming footage, and national news coverage, a la ABC World News Tonight or 20/20. In fact, SEARCHING thrillingly feels like it was plucked straight from a real-life modern day true crime story, with even a heartbreaking hashtag “#DadDidIt” trending on the sites that David sadly has to look at each day — eerily similar to real stories in which parents are wrongfully accused by the judgmental public of hurting their missing children, that we read about all the time.
As engaged as you’ll probably be with the story, you likely will not figure out exactly what the film’s twists and turns will be at every corner — even though the clues are cleverly jumping out at you from the start. The first two-thirds of the movie are its strongest, while the ending could prove to be divisive amongst audiences, depending on your level of suspension of disbelief. The final few minutes of twists are slightly wonky, but if you’ve been keeping your eyes peeled throughout the entire film and taking mental notes about what SEARCHING is trying to tell you, you should at least feel satisfied at its outcome— even if it is somewhat unrealistic.
SEARCHING deserves your time and attention, and it certainly deserves a ticket purchased at the theater. Ironically, a movie whose premise centers around the intimacy of the small screens in our lives should really be viewed on a big screen, in order for you to take notice of all the little icons, open browsers, user names, and pictures that you will want to pay attention to. After all, you will find yourself just as invested (and fearful) of Margot’s location as her father is. I worry that waiting to rent it and watch it on your TV set or laptop in a few months may not do the film the same justice. So turn your cell phone off/log off of Twitter/shut your laptop down and go check out SEARCHING this weekend.