Review

Searching (2018)

Director: Aneesh Chaganty

Cast: John Cho, Debra Messing, Michelle La

Running time: 102 minutes

4-stars

David (Cho) – a single father – thinks he has a healthy, honest relationship with daughter Margot (La). But, when she goes missing, and he is forced to delve into her online life in search of clues, he quickly realises that he may not really know her at all.

Attention, cinema-goers, the ‘e-nightmare’ is now trending.

That being, films set entirely on a computer screen that tap into a very primal fear for millennials and their parents alike, with less than subtle DMs about the social media age and its often-damning ramifications. The way things are going, it might just become its own sub-genre.

The Unfriended series, already two instalments deep, has given the Twitter-Face generation a rather nasty shock. Given that it’s a vast, mysterious landscape in itself, director Leo Gabriadze and writer Nelson Greaves made the devilishly clever decision to turn the internet into a legitimate film setting in 2014. With the development of broadband, we thought we’d exorcised those dial-up demons years ago; however, Unfriended – as all good horror films do – neatly asked us for an entirely new type of selfie: one with a filter that turned humans – the trolls and cyberbullies – into the true villains, and posed a question much more horrifying than the Skype scares on screen: can you really unplug from it all?

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Fresh from the release of Unfriended: Dark Web, Searching – which shares Producer Timur Bekmambetov – comes as the perfect marketing campaign for scroll-free September. Opting for a more realist approach over the paranormal threads of Unfriended, Searching takes a conventional crime thriller set-up and copy and pastes it into the online world of Facebook, Instagram and Tumblr. The return: an inventive and playful algorithm that produces a twisty-turny central narrative – with more red herrings and false conclusions than you can shake a mouse at – with a surprisingly human heart beating away behind the hashtags and cookies.

The life of Margot Kim, the now teenage daughter of Pamela and David, is pretty well documented. In an opening reminiscent of Pixar’s Up that also feels like an ad for Google Chrome, we swiftly scroll through her early life through the various pictures and videos captured and uploaded by her parents. But the joyous first days of school, piano lessons, and family day trips are given a tragic sting in the tail when Pamela dies of cancer, leaving David and Margot to piece together the shards of a grief-stricken home.

Then late one night, David receives three missed calls from Margot. After that, she’s gone; vanishing without a trace, leaving only – rather conveniently – her laptop. Quickly enlisting the help of the Detective assigned to the case, Rosemary Vick (Messing), David embarks on a desperate search (engine) for answers, where he learns as much about how to change a password, than the whereabouts of his own daughter.

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And it’s here where Searching cleverly connects its thematic wires to great effect. Emphasised by its own mode of visual storytelling, there’s a distance between father and daughter here, where Facetime has replaced the close, intimate interaction in the aftermath of tragedy. David is an image of social self-destruction, unable to share his true emotions in any personal way, and so instead – as if it were a form of drug – turns to the web, spending his life staring at himself through the eye of a web-cam.

When the only ‘real’ aspect of his life disappears, the search becomes as much about self-discovery as it does anything else; with David’s touching dedication to uncover the mystery juxtaposed with a creepy sense of voyeurism as he desperately trawls through Margot’s various social media accounts. Ultimately – and somewhat unnervingly – it’s only by hacking her laptop that David is truly able to comprehend how little he really knows about her.

In bittersweet irony, Searching is a film all about interaction, explored through a troubling truth: that we live in a world where children are more comfortable with opening up to complete strangers online than they are with talking to those closest to them.

A visual wonder – save for some barely-believable live news footage that is shoehorned in when narrative developments would be otherwise difficult to communicate – Searching is both a surprisingly accomplished and well-thought out thriller, and a sobering comment on the firm grip social media has over us.

Spearheaded by a commanding, convincing central performance from Cho, with Searching, you’ll very quickly forget the visual gimmicks and get tangled up in the numerous tabs of this engrossing mystery.

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