Mom would be too.
While it’s been done before (Unfriended and Open Windows to name two recent features), Aneesh Chaganty‘s all-on-digital-screens thriller Searching has earned a lot of buzz namely because it arrives with a genre pedigree beyond “schlock.” The vast majority of critics, filmgoers, and distributers still find it easy to dismiss horror despite it being an innovator in so many things. They can all roll their eyes at the aforementioned duo, labeling them “cult classics” without ever giving credit for their technological achievements until something “better” comes along. People are conversely talking like Chaganty’s debut has awards potential. And no one will be happier about that fact than producer Timur Bekmambetov who’s currently said to be developing fourteen more “screenlife” films (his term) before the fad runs out.
The format is perfect for thrills because it’s easy to hide information when you’re forced into a single vantage point for the entirety of your story. You’re able to lead the viewer along a winding road of red herrings, manipulating them until they’re primed for a fright. This is why you see horror films utilize it as a means of cultivating uncertainty through that art of withholding. The internet is all about skewed perspectives and alternate identities, playing with the notion of truth and trust by shielding both behind smoke and mirrors. Add the concept of privacy and you find yourself forever on the outside looking in. We witness the brazen indifference and/or narcissism of those wielding anonymity and their self-serving performances when the light shines their way.
But social media and GPS tracking are also helpful tools when you have the means to pair them together. Once David Kim (John Cho) comes to grips with the reality that his daughter Margot (Michelle La) is missing, he embarks down a rabbit hole of websites and passwords by leapfrogging back and forth so one can infiltrate another while the next confirms the first. By mining the data held on her unlocked laptop (Who knew a refusal to add any two-step verification could potentially save your life?), David is manually acquiring that which corporations buy from Facebook and Twitter as the definition of their business models. He—alongside the saintly police detective assigned his case (Debra Messing‘s Rosemary Vick)—is retracing the life his child never showed him.
Chaganty takes us through the layers of an online persona: from sites keeping our information public to those specifically used to escape connections curated by real life. He presents our insecurities and second-guessing in live conversations, the filter of the screen providing an opportunity to change responses on the fly or erase them altogether. But if he does anything better than the rest it’s exposing how many different stories we can spin from the same set of parameters. If all we know is that Margot is gone, had been lying, and talked to certain characters in ways we wouldn’t expect, our minds will fill in the blanks and we will go on the offensive uncaring of how our “facts” are merely assumptions. Only the author has true context.
By removing that author, anything and everything is possible and Chaganty doesn’t disappoint as far as taking us to dark places for David Kim to confront and attack without sufficient evidence. We of course accept his actions as those of a desperate parent and wonder if we’d do the same in similarly unfortunate circumstances. In many respects we become David during the process of watching the film. As he searches his digital screens for clues, we let our eyes wander around the frame to register minutiae that may come back into play later. Sometimes it’s cute in-joke references to Chaganty and Bekmambetov and other times they’re on-the-nose references like Margot’s school being “Home of the Catfish.” But pay close enough attention and David’s epiphanies eventually mirror our own.
Where things fell apart for me was the ending. Films sold with marketing like “You’ll never see it coming” ensure that we try our hardest to “see it coming” as though the statement is a challenge. I’ll admit that while it’s easy to pick out certain incongruities (even if they are explained away), the real twist does prove to be a surprise. Sadly it doesn’t do so in a good way. Rather than feel natural in the context of a tautly told drama, it’s as though Chaganty and co-writer Sev Ohanian intentionally decided to choose the least likely suspect as their perpetrator before working backwards to sprinkle in clues that made it work. In doing so, the final ten minutes is jam-packed with revelations that feel like afterthought.
Searching also seems to have some need to reward us during this process—like it was afraid it had proven too dark beforehand and worried it would lose us without a few “wins” to make the journey worthwhile. This mindset comes off as cheap by comparison. You can’t start your film with a poignantly told collage rivaling Up‘s emotion roller coaster only to chicken out on the reality of life’s inherent terror for sunny optimism. This is a personal preference, but the way the filmmakers so carefully tie off everything with a bow had me thinking I was the one being catfished rather than the numerous instances onscreen. There’s also some borderline victim blaming at work that feels less like commentary than an actual desire for sympathy.
No matter how many issues I had with the conclusion, however, the whole is effectively drawn. The gimmick invests us from the opening frame and both Cho and La are superb in their depictions of grief, depression, and the cheery masks meant to hide it from the world. Moments like David rewinding a video to watch his daughter’s smile turn into a frown three times isn’t excessive because of the truth of Cho’s performance. This father is having his eyes opened to her pain and his many failures in real-time. So he would need to do certain things very deliberately to convince himself it’s real. Chaganty uses that to reinforce David’s discoveries with the audience, ensuring we’re led down those same paths by emotion rather than reason.
 John Cho stars in Screen Gems’ thriller SEARCHING. PHOTO BY: Sebastian Baron ©2018 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
 John Cho stars as David Kim in Screen Gems’ SEARCHING. PHOTO BY: ELIZABETH KITCHENS PHOTOGRAPHER ©2018 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved.
 John Cho stars as David Kim in Screen Gems’ SEARCHING. PHOTO BY: ELIZABETH KITCHENS ©2018 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved.