SEARCHING (Aneesh Chaganty). 102 minutes. Opens Friday (August 31). See listing. Rating: NNN
Searching is another of executive producer Timur Bekmambetov’s screen movies like the Unfriended films: all the action is relayed via laptops, cellphones and television feeds. (Patrick Cederberg and Walter Woodman’s 2013 short Noah did it first, and even won a prize at TIFF, but no one seems to remember that one.)
Unlike the Unfriended movies, however, Searching isn’t a horror movie. It’s a thriller starring John Cho as David Kim, a widower whose teenage daughter, Margot (Michelle La), vanishes without a trace.
Except that in the 21st century, there’s no way to fully disappear, so David – an IT expert who knows all about digital footprints – brings his own experience to the investigation by digging through Margot’s laptop, her social media contacts and any other online resource available.
The screen-movie thing gets all the attention in the marketing, but the real innovation here is how first-time feature director/co-writer Chaganty uses the shorthand of smartphones and FaceTime to convey deep dramatic beats. Indeed, the first 10 minutes of Searching rival the prelude of Pixar’s Up in using simple, elegant visual storytelling to deliver an emotional wallop.
Cho’s essential to that as well, bringing his impressive range and technical facility to a role performed almost entirely in front of a webcam. Nearly every moment of Searching is a sharp reminder that he should be a much bigger star than he is. I also understand Sony’s last-minute shift of the release date from early August to later in the month, after the arrival of Crazy Rich Asians; it’s now perfectly positioned to contribute to the conversation about cinematic representation rather than be buried under that film’s avalanche of publicity.
I do wish Chaganty and his co-writer, Sev Ohanian, had used the extra time to figure out a better ending, as the one they went with doesn’t really work. I think they trusted Cho to make it play, but not even his talent is up to that particular challenge.