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After David Kim (John Cho)'s 16-year-old daughter goes missing, a local investigation is opened and a detective is assigned to the case. But 37 hours later and without a single lead, David decides to search the one place no one has looked yet, where all secrets are kept today: his daughter's laptop. In a hyper-modern thriller told via the technology devices we use every day to communicate, David must trace his daughter's digital footprints before she disappears forever.
Innovative and groundbreaking for being GOOD at what it does
The word "gimmick" can be thrown around to describe a major element of a film that changes up the ordinary tropes we'd expect from a rather straightforward flick. There is 3D, timeline splicing, animation, found footage, you name it. Some films almost even fall into these places as a genre. When they do, you get the inkling that the people responsible for thinking up the movie likely have these elements in mind at the forefront with the story as an afterthought. Only when that occurs do I call those elements gimmicky. And it's not that a gimmick is a bad thing, but if that is what you rely on to make your story compelling, it will often become a crutch for poor storytelling or one-and-done enjoyment. Sometimes it is done right, in which case the gimmick works... but most of the time it has that negative connotation for good reason.
However, there is another breed of films where you can get that feeling that a story was thought up, and ultimately it was decided that the best way to tell that story was by use of something like 3D, etc. When that happens, it is no longer a gimmick nor does it fall into that genre, so to speak. It is just the best way to tell that story, even though the story could work very well without it. I am no longer attracted to the film because of the device being used, but rather I can almost ignore that it's happening because I am so engraved in the story being told.
Within the found footage narrative realm has come screencasting, where we see the world through somebody's computer or phone screen. The first and only film of this variety I have seen was Unfriended, which takes place on one user's laptop screen as she does a group webcam chat. This played off as a gimmick because it was the only way to tell the story. Searching is now the second screencasting film I have seen. It has a bit of a hybrid feel though because there are jumps to other footage needed to tell the story (perhaps from the news or something) and there is also a score that the characters otherwise wouldn't hear.
Gimmick is also the last term I would use to describe what it does. Of course, this is plainly because the story is what drives the film and could be done without this style, but also because this style is doing more than tell a story: it is telling of our generation's attachments to/reliance on technology, the internet and most of all social media. The right audience will connect with this very well because they will feel very comfortable and familiar. This is where the film gets to breathe and even provide what one could call comedic relief (in just how real it all is to our technological experiences).
Director and co-writer Aneesh Chaganty came up with something extraordinary, and very smartly crafted this film into something where the main character's (played by John Cho) computer and phone are not devices (no pun intended), but they are now characters. There is an inaudible dialogue between him and screen, and the audience fills the gaps of what each of them are saying to each other. I say the story could be told without the screencasting in play, but the audience would need another way of being exposed information through needless dialogue, either to oneself or other characters. That, or we would still be looking at computer screens for a very long time, or time would have to be served filling scenes in other ways, so restructuring the screenplay would be required (which is possible, but I think Chaganty found the best way to tell his story).
I am still on a high with this film, to the point where I temporarily feel comfortable saying this is my favorite film of the year so far. The trailer that I just watched on this film after the fact would lend you to believe that it is a suspense/thriller, and even though it is suspenseful and thrilling I would not identify it as that. I would call it more of a drama/mystery. I think the first ten minutes of the film easily define what the entirety of the film will play out to be with regards to what emotions it will tap into you, and the opener of this film is one of my favorites in a long time. Thinking back on it, it's probably what really seals what I really think about Searching as a whole, and puts your mind at ease for the screencasting style that Chaganty tells the story with.
This film is about a father whose high school daughter turns up missing, and he cooperates with the police in doing his own personal detective work through means of his electronic devices to help aid their investigation. Thinking back at some of the missing persons films I have seen in my days (Gone Girl, Prisoners, Taken, Man on Fire, Gone Baby Gone, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Flightplan, Ransom), these stories have ranged from: straightforward to conspiracy-laden, kidnappings to runaways, found alive to found deceased to never found at all... and Searching gives you reason to believe that any of these possibilities could be true, all within staying very real. I think that's what makes this movie work most, that by the end of the day you convince yourself that you felt you saw something extremely grounded and strangely relatable. I mentioned the technology/internet/social media aspects, but the characters also relate well, and because it takes place in the Bay Area it also gives more bonus points for someone like me because I have an extra connection with the locations that are mentioned or utilized. It's best that you try and not decide for yourself what kind of film or outcome you hope to see going into it, and instead commend the shrewd genius in weaving the pieces together in a very levelheaded manner.
Absolutely none of this works without the sturdy acting by John Cho. You clearly see the image of a wrecked and broken father attempting to find his daughter. He has a compelling way of making us feel his his hurt and desperation. Chaganty once again used the screencasting element well here in having his character's on-screen actions say so much as well, from his mouse gestures to the things he starts to type but deletes before sending to other people, etc. The audience will not have to work too hard with these facets because of competent directing and brilliant acting.
What I suggest you do work really hard at while watching, however, is what I would call the Easter eggs this film has. When a screen pops up with a bunch of e-mails, news articles, or chat conversations, you want to pick up everything that you can because you won't be able to pause and rewind in theater. But furthermore and most importantly, every revelation of this film can be grasped if you work and look hard enough at everything that Cho's character works and looks at. This is a good thing, and what makes it even better is this film is never predictable (mostly because you know as much as the protag does, because you are literally seeing the film through his eyes). You get to stay on the edge of your seat through this process, even if nothing is really going on, because you feel like you get to take everything in at the same time that he does. There is a lot to process here, and again it is all in such a very real way.
This one is such a good time at the theater, and I think the only people who will be disappointed in this flick is if they: find the screencasting to be too much of a gimmick for their taste, feel misled by the trailer's overly suspenseful tone, or they already have one or two predetermined outcomes in mind that they want to happen and it doesn't suit their liking. Comparatively, my biggest gripes in this film stem from things like characters typing messages lightning-fast and perfectly (and people responding faster than they would even be able to read the message sent to them), plus off-screen voice acting was very wooden. That's pretty much it. As it stands tonight though, it is my favorite film I have seen this year. I don't want to call it groundbreaking what Chaganty did as far as influence goes (I don't expect many of these films to suddenly churn out as a result), but as far as accomplishing intent in a unique manner I think he did what no one else has before, and it works far too well for the story he told.
For those who are curious, this film is not yet rated but I can easily say the MPAA will give this a PG-13.
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