Whether it’s an aversion to digital filming upstream in the process, or advancing home cinema technology luring audiences away from darkened theatres speckled with the light from idiots’ iPhones , you can’t avoid the constant hum of anxiety within the film industry today. SEARCHING, which premieres at this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival, harnesses this tension around technology differently; using the medium of digital technology and social media to stage a missing daughter storyline.
John Cho plays David Kim, father of the teenage Margot. They are still recovering from the loss of Margot’s mother to cancer, which is played out over screens in a very Pixar UP v2.0 kind of style. When Margot goes missing one night, David must navigate the maze of his daughter’s digital life to try and track her down, with the help of Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing), the detective assigned to the case.
The technology through which SEARCHING is visually expressed often cuts us off from the ‘real’ world (‘IRL’ if you prefer…) There is a certain irony, then, in the intensification which it brings to the character-based dramatic tension. SEARCHING captures the minor stresses of modern digital life, such as that curiously millennial fear of the ringing phone. David’s FaceTime alert from Margot, the inappropriately upbeat ringtone twinkling away in the dead of night, is far more disconcerting than any darkened jump scare or cut to black might have been. This isn’t to say the visuals are static - director and writer Aneesh Chaganty still pans and zooms on relevant elements, cuts rapidly when needed, and uses classic thriller-style music to add tension.
SEARCHING expresses David’s racing mind and desperate leaps of logic through the medium of his and his daughter’s laptop screens…
SEARCHING expresses David’s racing mind and desperate leaps of logic through the medium of his and his daughter’s laptop screens – the messy desktop, the visual links he makes. In addition, there are less helpful aspects of digital ubiquity such as a Reddit thread where low-grade amateur sleuths go over crime scene photos. The idea of expressing the story through digital user interfaces is not a brand new one (an episode of sitcom MODERN FAMILY being constructed in a very similar fashion, and horror film UNFRIENDED by the same production team), but SEARCHING does carry off tension and emotional beats with aplomb.
Chaganty uses the initial hook well to dole out restricted information which keeps the intrigue and engagement levels high. The film underscores a fairly conventional plot, dealing with modern anxiety about the effect of online services on family and peer interactions – seemingly connecting and disconnecting in equal measure, presenting a very public version of one’s self whilst simultaneously making an emotional retreat. SEARCHING has a clarity of purpose that is executed well. A conventional thriller at its core, the use of non-cinematic technology has a surprisingly cinematic effect when spliced with more conventional film making. Chaganty is perhaps a bit too fond of the narrative rug-pull made possible by a reimagined version of unreliable narration, but this is largely masked by the pace, performances and a directorial restraint which makes sure the story quits while it’s ahead.