Searching has found a new way to make a mystery movie

Searching movie photo credit: Sebastian Barron via Sony Publicity
Searching movie photo credit: Sebastian Barron via Sony Publicity /

Searching is a compelling mystery told in an ambitious, original way.

For the uninitiated, the whole thing about Searching is that the movie never leaves the confines of a phone or computer screen. Characters use Facetime to communicate with one another, while screenshots of Google searches, YouTube videos, webcams, and social media round out the rest. It’s definitely ambitious, especially for first-time filmmaker Aneesh Chaganty, a former Google employee who co-wrote the script with Sev Ohanian.

It’s also tricky, putting an ambitious idea front and center, as it risks the project being dismissed as some kind of “gimmick movie.”

However, Searching manages to avoid these pratfalls by having its gimmick (for lack of a better word) used to tell an incredibly compelling mystery, and giving it the context that warrants the kind of narrative that never leaves someone else’s screen.

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The heart of Searching is John Cho, who plays David Kim, a widower who’s struggling to raise his teenage daughter, Margot, played by Michelle La. One night, Margot doesn’t come home. David doesn’t exactly notice, and just assumes his daughter left for school before he was awake. Little by little, the hours pass, and David has to come to terms with the fact that his daughter is missing.

The cop assigned to the case, Detective Vick (Debra Messing), assures David that she’ll do everything she can to find his daughter, but David isn’t content to sit back while his daughter is unaccounted for.

So, he starts to go through Margot’s life online — some of which he knew about, some of which he didn’t. The more he explores, the more desperate he becomes.

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It’s the emphasis on using someone’s digital footprint is what really allows Searching to test the limits of the one rule it set for itself: the story never leaves someone’s screen. While a lesser story would’ve still allowed Searching some kind of honorary mention in the annals of interesting experiments with narrative, the fact that it’s a genuinely suspense-filled mystery. The kind that keeps viewers engaged as they try to stay one step ahead of the main character and figure out the case for themselves.

Interestingly, the movie never becomes critical to the notion of our online lives and instead accepts it as the world we live in now. After all, we live in a society where staring at your phone for 18 hours a day is the norm, and when you consider how much we rely on these devices, it only makes sense to tell a story using only that medium.

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Sure, Searching is a thoroughly impressive marvel of technical filmmaking, but it elevates itself to being truly great by anchoring its ambitious wizardry with a truly gripping story.

Searching is in limited release this weekend and opens nationwide next weekend.