For all its message bells and notification whistles as a mystery that plays out on portable screens, Searching is a straightforward and smartly bittersweet story of existential anxiety in the digital age.
Yes, co-writers Sev Ohanian and Aneesh Chaganty (who also directs) contort their creation with a few too many credulity-straining curtain pulls — full of connections that armchair-detective Redditors or even someone capable of digging deeper on a basic web search might piece together.
Searching also plays faster and looser with its conceit of screen-captured suspense than such predecessors as Open Windows or Unfriended. Whenever necessary (read: “convenient”), the first-person POV shifts to unseen characters consuming coverage of the missing-person case at Searching’s core. Like insidious and invasive advertisers, Chaganty also exploits eye tracking — purposefully pushing in or pulling back on certain images to poke your emotions. Its worst concession to conventional cinema? A thick-and-chunky score shoved down your throat by composer Torin Borrowdale, particularly in a prologue akin to the gloomiest Google ad.
David (John Cho) and Margot (Michelle La) are a father and daughter who’ve never truly dealt with the cancer death of the family’s matriarch, Pamela (Sara Sohn). The prologue rankles, but it’s at least instructive as to David’s withdrawal from discussing the demons he foolishly thought he’d wrangled. He pivots from even saying aloud words like “worry” lest they lend a tactile presence to the weariness and loneliness he’s loathe to confront. Between Columbus and the second season of TV’s The Exorcist, Cho has proven a master of revelatory minutiae on the faces of likable, believable men under emotional duress. He lets the weight of David’s aversion to crises sag his body under an untenable burden.
In other words, it’s why David tries to play it cool when Margot doesn’t come home after an all-night study session and avoids his texts the next day. (Perhaps she’s just tired of David riding her ass about taking out the trash.) Once it becomes clear Margot is missing, panic takes precedence. David commandeers Margot’s computer, accesses her accounts and involves the police through do-gooder detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing). Cho and Messing’s rapport is that of empathy over affection, warmth over sparks and compassion over confrontation … at least initially before frustration with the investigation’s pace sets in.
Each discovery bodes worse for Margot’s well-being — and David’s grasp on his daughter’s life and deeds — as the mystery deepens into suspicions and suppositions. Ohanian and Chaganty never send Cho into Ransom mode, instead letting David abet the cops by listening more closely, and astutely, to the digital signals that Margot transmitted to a world beyond her walls. What David finds illustrates how performative and punitive these global points of connection become when the chips are down. His desktop gradually morphs into a sort of overstuffed public square, notifications stacked atop one another like tattered, fraying handbills under a digital wind. His pursuit also occasionally breaks up tension with big laughs, but even those illustrate how tightly we cling to the online identities we curate — cautiously or otherwise.
Searching sort of bungles its climactic scene of explanatory zigzags and switchbacks, and it definitely overexerts itself to send you home with a sense of justice rarely, if ever, found online. Thankfully, Ohanian and Chaganty are more genuinely interested in the introspective interrogation of identity rather than fingering a suspect. They understand that grief and vulnerability render us as susceptible to theft as a phishing scam. While Google can predictively fill in our queries about what to do before we even know just what we’re seeking, the navigation of life, death and parental guidance is never so simple. Set aside the occasional stumbles, and Searching ultimately reminds us of the beautiful, terrible ways in which our ever-connected world remains large and small.