Russian filmmaker Timur Bekmambetov has been quietly building a niche for himself as the producer of a subgenre of movies he dubs “screen life,” including the two Unfriended movies and the new thriller Searching. Like the Unfriended movies (and the upcoming Profile, which is currently on the festival circuit), Searching unfolds entirely on computer screens, telling its story via emails, video calls, social media posts and online videos.
The style here is less rigorous than in the Unfriended movies, though, with more traditional cinematic elements, including a non-diegetic musical score and externally motivated camera movements (pans, close-ups, etc.). At certain points, director Aneesh Chaganty uses streaming video broadcasts to depict the action in a familiar found-footage style, letting events unfold in front of fixed cameras.
The mix of styles works surprisingly well, putting a fresh spin on what is a pretty standard thriller story. While Unfriended meticulously mimicked the various ways that teens use technology, Searching focuses on a middle-aged protagonist who’s not nearly as tech-savvy, and it’s more fluid with its approach to depicting the screens that he interacts with.
The movie starts with a montage that efficiently establishes the relationship between David Kim (John Cho) and his teenage daughter Margot (Michelle La), via photos, videos, appointment reminders and other ephemera that accumulate in our daily lives. Pam (Sara Sohn), David’s wife and Margot’s mother, has passed away after a lengthy battle with cancer, and father and daughter are having trouble connecting with each other since Pam’s death.
That’s why David doesn’t initially worry when Margot seems to come home after he’s asleep one night and leave the next morning before he wakes up, and then not respond to his calls and texts throughout the subsequent day. Eventually, though, he realizes that his daughter isn’t just ignoring him because she’s annoyed at his nagging about taking out the trash; she’s actually gone missing and is potentially in danger. David teams up with dedicated police detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing) to track Margot’s movements, delving deeply into her online activity and discovering that he may not have known his daughter as well as he thought he did.
Although it deals with very modern concerns about the dangers that teenagers face online, Searching is at heart an old-fashioned thriller, with a devoted parent who will stop at nothing to find out what happened to his daughter. But it’s quite a well-constructed thriller, in which small details revealed over the course of the story all contribute to the eventual solution. Chaganty and co-writer Sev Ohanian fill the story with twists and red herrings, straining credibility a bit by the end.
But even if the plot stretches itself thin after a while, Cho’s compelling performance holds the movie together, anchoring it in real emotions of desperation and grief. David’s gradual realization that he’s unwittingly become estranged from Margot is heartbreaking, even when confined to a small window on less than half of the screen. The screen life approach allows Chaganty to build fully realized characters without much clumsy exposition, and the performances complement the background details to add up to a seamless portrayal. Searching makes a strong case for Bekmambetov’s vision as a new way of making movies, while grounding itself in reliable, classical storytelling.