Movies that break out at Sundance—or any festival—don’t always live up to the hype, but I am glad to say that is not the case with Searching. Aneesh Chaganty’s thriller is as good as advertised, being both a stellar suspense flick and a fantastic leading performance from John Cho. The film is done in the recently-developed style of presenting a story entirely through the lens of computer and phone cameras, though Searching does also add in local news coverage. This style was pioneered by Unfriended, a teen slasher horror movie reframed by Skype. (That movie is okay, the sequel is an unwatchable snuff film.) Searching, though, is a more elegant use of the technique as it is just plain a better story—better conceived, better written, and better executed—and also for how it relies on the limited view of a computer camera to reveal a family’s life.
Cho stars as David Kim, a recently-widowed father failing to cope with his grief and that of his daughter, Margot (Michelle La). The opening sequence shows us the Kim family in happier times, and the slow devolution to their current bereaved state, giving us only a glimpse of their private nightmare through ever-evolving email interfaces, calendar appointments, and clips of family vlogs. It’s very well done and sets the tone for how Chaganty manages the peekaboo nature of this kind of filmmaking. You’re not going to see everything, there are no wide shots or master shots to ground you in a place and put you within the action. The viewer is held at a distance, limited by the range of the computer/phone camera, which is perfect for a thriller because that distance makes you feel helpless as events unfold. That helplessness only increases engagement with the story, though, as you can FEEL David’s desperation overwhelming him, which in turn raises the tension.
All this is not to say that Searching doesn’t have its cheater moments. News footage does much of the heavy lifting of exposition, and yes, it is WAY more invasive than actual news footage would ever be in order to maintain the flow of the story. The music is not diegetic—something the first Unfriended did with mixed results—and the score is provided by Torin Borrowdale (it’s a good score and it’s fine, really, that the music is clearly “outside” the camera gimmick). And one scene relies on hidden cameras in order to provide a multi-frame view that allows for a “single take” sequence. Chaganty takes on the gimmick of “filming” through computer cameras, but he knows when to bend the style in order to better serve his story (he co-wrote the script with Sev Ohanian).
And the story is what makes Searching. It’s an extremely well plotted thriller with enough satisfying twists and turns to keep you entirely engaged. It’s not the most stressful thriller, but Cho’s performance keeps it grounded and emotional, and if you pay attention to all the news crawls and background internet screens, there are some red herrings thrown in. The reveal is EXTREMELY satisfying, and is the kind of thing that prompts second viewings to pick up missed clues. There is one big fat clue that plays so well and so naturally in the moment you don’t even know it is a clue until the end. It’s really well done.
Searching is really good and really fun, and the way Chaganty uses the camera gimmick is more than just a style choice. The very nature of how the internet works, with its layers and passwords, and how that can hide so much of a person’s existence, is built into the story itself. For a style that relies on the “ugliness” of mobile cameras, it’s quite an elegant narrative. Unfriended was the first movie to use this camera technique, but Searching is the one that shows the potential for these kinds of mobile narratives, if you will. And it doesn’t hurt that Searching has John Cho as its anchor, with his sympathy-invoking hangdog expressions. This technique can very quickly turn cold and alienating, so the success of these types of movies depends on having sympathetic, emotive actors at their core, and Chaganty makes perfect use of Cho. Searching is a great thriller that actually lives up to the hype.