The concept of filming from the point of view of technology is nothing relatively new. Found footage films are a dime a dozen. However, a very new tend is starting to creep into Hollywood of putting a new twist on the found footage formula, showing movies from the POV of computer screens and smart phones instead of handheld cameras. We’ve seen this done twice now with the two “Unfriended” movies so it’s only natural the idea is starting to spread into other creative minds. That brings me to “Searching”, a new thriller getting a lot of attention for its deep performances and mastery of it’s still-young and unique POV style. It’s also credited as the first mainstream Hollywood thriller with an Asian-American in the leading role. But is all this praise around “Searching” simply based on its unique POV setup and it’s claim to fame with its star or is there actual quality behind this flick? Let’s look a little deeper. This is my review of “Searching”.
WHAT’S IT ABOUT
“Searching” puts the focus on David Kim, played by John Cho, whose wife Pamela passed away several years prior to the movie from an illness leaving his perfect family splintered. David remains close to his daughter Margot (Michelle La) although clearly there’s some distance between the two. They communicate through Facetime and other social media outlets in the film. One night Margot doesn’t return from a study group which sparks concern from David as to her whereabouts. Eventually his fears are confirmed that Margot is, in fact, missing and the case is taken on by Detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing) who offers to allow David to assist with the investigation by looking through Margot’s laptop and social media profiles. As David digs into her daughter’s social media habits he begins to learn secrets about what she has been doing behind his back and realizes he didn’t know his daughter as well as he thought. As the investigation into Margot’s whereabouts continues over the course of a week the case quickly goes viral while David tries to piece together his daughter’s life to find answers that seem to elude him at every turn.
There’s not much to talk about in this section because really there are only two true starring roles in this film, John Cho as David Kim and Debra Messing as the detective. Of course, Cho gets most of the screen time and the praise he has received in the film’s early run is completely warranted and deserved. Despite having to express emotion and concern through social media videos Cho pulls it off rather impressively putting us right in the middle of his situation and making the audience feel like we’re getting a look into a very personal struggle we should not be privy to. Cho’s portrayal of desperate and obsessed father trying to find the answers to his daughter’s whereabouts is captivating and, in my opinion, presents the very real intensity and frustrations any parent would probably face if their only hope for finding their child was to dig through an endless supply of social media resources. Cho also never lets the POV gimmick control him as an actor. He just does what he would naturally do and allows the filming style to work as it is meant to. It’s a sincere, real, and powerful performance worthy of respect and shows that Cho, who many still probably know as the MILF guy from “American Pie” or Harold Lee from “Harold and Kumar”, can not only hold a film all on his own but he can do so without the need for comedic gimmicks and pandering. He’s just that good and charming an actor where he can captivate the audience just by looking at them the right way and emoting.
Debra Messing portrays the only other prominent character throughout the larger story as Detective Rosemary Vick, a decorated officer who has taken on the case to try and find Margot Kim. It’s been a while since Messing was in a theatrical film, four years to be exact, and yes, she’s still got it. While it’s not her absolute best work, it doesn’t have to be. Messing is meant to be a grounding ally to Cho’s David Kim and she serves that role showing concern and a decent amount of emotional investment due to her character’s own status as a parent while also keeping her character’s professionalism intact. She seems to genuinely care about Kim’s predicament and finding answers for him to the point where she allows him to be involved in the investigation. I did enjoy seeing her return to the big screen and despite being a more notable name than John Cho she never outshines him or tries to overshadow him. Let’s face it the movie couldn’t have survived off the charisma of John Cho alone and Messing has enough star power and legitimate talent to add another dynamic to the story giving us a more neutral character with genuine concerns but an understanding of what needs to be done and how to find Margot. It’s heartbreaking to see someone tell John Cho the honest possible realities of his daughter’s disappearance and not once does it ever feel like Messing doesn’t feel for the father. It’s a great paring of talented performers that drives this entire movie and without them “Searching” would have been only a shell of its final product.
There’s so much to love about “Searching” to be honest. Aside from the gripping pair of lead actor performances “Searching” has so many thrills and nail-biting moments and so much social commentary I barely know where to start, so I’ll start with the thrilling side and work my way through. Despite being completely isolated to computer and phones screens, security cameras and news footage “Searching” manages to be just an intense and unnerving as any thriller out there. It takes the formula first explored in horror and perfects it with a more polished presentation and focus as well as great pacing to keep you on the edge of your seat the entire movie. The viewer is just as desperate to find answers as David Kim and we truly want him to find some peace in a time of terror for any parent. I found “Searching” to be incredibly exciting and just a joy to watch from start to finish even if that joy came from its ability to pander to the most dramatic of human emotions. I always felt truly invested in the investigation and the result. That’s a credit to some great writing and directing from Aneesh Chaganty who wrote the film with Sev Ohanian.
By far my favorite aspect of “Searching” though is the social commentary. It’s such a brutally honest movie about the social media era of the world that I was in awe of just how ballsy it was in throwing everything in the face of the viewers and saying, “this is you, you created this…this is how you act”. As the investigation into Margot’s whereabouts progresses we see people turning to their computers to express opinions and even steal the spotlight. One student who had told Margot’s father earlier in the film that she barely new Margot posts a video where she cries about losing her closest friend thus turning Margot’s death into her own sob story the way students would likely react in the real world. People post on social media accusing David Kim of being the murderer using the hashtags “DadDidIt” and “ParentFail” the same way everyone on social media seems to think they are a detective and how to solve a crime with minimal details. These might come off as pretentious attacks on how the world utilizes social media today but they’re not pretentious, they’re just brutally accurate. This is exactly how the world would react to such a story. It’s exactly how they have reacted to these stories in the past. Taking it one step further however it’s not just about how people misuse social media, it’s also about the risks of social media to the user themselves. David Kim finds that his daughter has been contacting people using chat rooms and videos and by the end of the film the story comes around to an interesting commentary on catfishing and how people are not truly themselves on social media. Those who are trying to be their honest selves are often taken advantage of or worse.
This whole movie does a great job serving as not just an expertly crafted thriller with a gimmick, but also utilizes that gimmick to perfectly punch viewers in the face with a little dose of reality. This is how the world is now. This is how we act, and this is how we communicate. Social media comes with incredible risks and very few true filters. It’s changed the way we communicate, in some ways for the better and in other ways for the worst. Showing all of this through the eyes of a father trying to understand and rescue his Generation Z daughter solidifies “Searching” as more than just another thriller film. Like “Eighth Grade” from earlier this year is provides an important and insightful look at the current generation and how information is exchanged in our world as well as how people misuse technology to do questionable things. “Searching” manages to be fun and exciting as well as significant which makes for a full experience that truly owns the point of view concept like no movie before it and like many copycats will likely try to do in the years to come.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK
There were some awkward elements of “Searching” worth pointing out, none of which really make the movie unwatchable but still they are worth mentioning. Probably the one thing that bothered me the most throughout the movie was the voice overs. Several times we see David Kim talking to someone on the phone and the voice over work to allow us to hear the person on the other line is often forced or poorly acted, even by Debra Messing herself who does just fine when she’s on screen but when she’s talking on the phone unseen she sounds more wooden. Now this could have been an attempt to give us some insight into how David Kim is hearing them seeing as his mind is racing and his daughter is missing but it doesn’t feel that way. We’re always led to assume this is how they naturally talk, and it never feels fluid. It feels like the voice overs were done without any real knowledge of the context of the scene or where it would be placed in the film. It’s even more noticeable once we see that Debra Messing delivers her lines smoothly during her on screen speaking times, so you can actually tell the difference between how she decided to act, further insinuating that the voice overs were done at a completely different part of production from the rest of the movie. It’s an awkward aspect of this film that doesn’t ruin it but feels very out of place considering how polished the rest of the project is.
The only other real issue I had with the movie is the conclusion. I’m going to try very hard not to spoil anything here but it might be inevitable so feel free to scroll down if you don’t want to have even a hint of the final moments spoiled for you……
So the final few scenes reveal what actually happened to David Kim’s daughter and I can’t help but point out that the culprit is very obvious in hindsight. The film actually does a very good job hiding it throughout the movie using slight of hand and other neat tricks that required incredible attention to detail to pull off. It’s the kind of revelation that makes me want to go back and watch it a second time to see what I missed especially sense it seemed so obvious after the fact. However aside from the predictability I did feel like the movie kind of copped out in the final moments. I won’t say how but I think you can fill in the blank as to what I’m talking about here. Don’t get me wrong I’m happy with the outcome, but it was, again, a predicable outcome that erased a lot of the emotional weight of the conclusion for me. Still “Searching” allows its main character some much needed closure and it’s not even close to the worst cop out I’ve ever seen on the big screen. I just felt like it would have meant more and had a much larger impact if it went in a different direction. It’s odd to appreciate the end of a film while also criticizing it too, but I guess that’s what makes “Searching” so much fun. A lot of it is subjective in its own special way which allows viewers to see it as more than just a simple thriller. It has so much more to offer in its mystery and its social commentary so while it has it’s share of issues they’re not enough to detract from the overall quality of an incredible film.
“Searching” is more than just a great thriller, it’s an important movie that delves into the dangers, unfortunate realities and risks of social media and the digital age and it does so while avoiding feeling overly pretentious. The acting is great, the script is awesome, and the gimmick of using the POV of media tools like computers and phones never dominates the film but rather compliments it perfectly. It’s creative, it’s engaging, and it’s driven by pure human emotion from start to finish going maybe even farther with its gimmick than it ever had to. For me “Searching” is one of the best thrillers of 2018 and the latest in a growing line of films that years down the road the future generations will watch to understand the culture of Generation Z, Millennials and what the world was truly like in the 2010s. I love a movie that goes all in with its concept, manages to touch on incredible social themes and provides great acting that helps the viewers be more invested in the fate of the characters. “Searching” provides that and much more escaping the labels of being a revolutionary take on the found footage concept and being the first Asian led Hollywood thriller to actually be a good film worth praising on its own merit as well. It’s an awesome experience and one I highly recommend.