Told exclusively through a computer screen and detailed in its understanding of technology, Searching is a brilliant thriller for the digital era that proves no one knows you like your browsing history.
With the Internet dominating our daily lives, it’s not surprising that the lust for the exploration of its role in our society in the cinemas has grown. So far, we’ve had two films of Unfriended series, Ingrid Goes West that pokes fun at the #influencer culture, and recent Eighth Grade that deals with pressures and anxieties of a teenager coming of age in the times of Instagram and Snapchat. The list will undoubtedly grow as the real life provides for stories and ignites imaginations; the new entry on it is Searching, a smart thriller from Aneesh Chaganty, that highlights the interconnect of our daily lives with technology that is stronger than many of us would admit.
The biggest asset of Searching is undoubtedly its spotless record of understanding the technology. Firstly, it changes with time: the computer interfaces characters use evolve throughout the first several minutes, from Windows XP to the newest MacBooks, creating an illusion of passing time even to those who couldn’t be bothered about dissecting the differences in operating systems. Secondly, it’s how it uses the limitations of the computer screen to tell us about the events; although it takes a few minutes to get used to this YT tutorial-style projection, soon the storytelling emerges from the computer screen and we stop paying attention to the mechanics of it.
The story sets its emotional stakes with a few moves of the cursor on the screen from the get-go. In just a few seconds, we get a private snapshot of important moments from David (John Cho) and Pamela’s (Sara Sohn) life: they document their family’s biggest moments, such as Margot’s (Michelle La) first school days, with pictures they dutifully archive on their computer. There are emails and calendar appointments, too, and it doesn’t take the director long to crush us with the obituary composed on the same computer: the beloved wife and mother has passed away after a fight with lymphoma. David and Margot are mourning, and a deeper disconnect between the two forms soon. After one evening at a study group, the father wakes up to a few missed calls from his daughter. When he’s not able to get through to her, he reports her as missing, starting a desperate search for her alongside detective Vick (Debra Messing).
Due to the limitations of the form of this experiment, it doesn’t play around with cinematography on a traditional level, taking a whole different road instead: what you see fits a mockumentary bill, with Facetime calls, bank statements, social media, vicious YouTube comments or Snapchat-like videos and live streams used as a medium to tell the story. It uses the format of the visual content we’re so familiar with to play with traditional tricks of the trade that harvest emotions for the viewer – closeups aplenty, for instance – highlighting John Cho’s magnificent acting. He’s given only so much space for expression, and yet his video chats with the police officer or conversations with his brother can be soaked with vulnerability and feeling. Even some small details that became somewhat of a substitute to reading other person’s intentions in the digital age, like typing and deleting the message or adding an emoji, are deepening the emotional landscape of the story. As we dive into father’s investigation, the visual tendencies that highlight the most important information create a sense of anticipation. The audience is encouraged to look for clues with him and take guesses on their own; essentially, we’re in front of a computer screen, immersed in David’s reality, trying to find Margot.
This experiment wouldn’t be half as effective if it wasn’t for a gripping story. Margot’s father is well-versed in technology – a conference call he participates in hints that he works in the very industry – but there’s a discrepancy between his understanding of its mechanics and his daughter’s attachment to it. The film highlights the interesting gap between our ability to use it to our advantage versus our understanding of it as a reflection of our society in the communities that don’t live by different rules at all, despite springing from the cyberspace. Tackling the bigger trope of the generational gap, it explores how disconnected teenagers have become from the older generation in the span of twenty years or so because of the Internet disruption; thankfully, it doesn’t forget that they deal with the same problems at the core but express it in a way that might be much less accessible to their parents. While the father believes that what he sees in real life is what the life of his daughter is, unfurling her online friendships and activities provides him with a bigger picture that he never had access to.
Paradoxically, with the hyperconnectivity we’re surrounded by, loneliness is on the rise and predators are in full force – yet, Searching stays away from a cautionary tale of “you never know who’s on the other side” and fills in the details of the digital landscape adeptly. Although it does shelter us from the weirdest bits of the internet, it’s still a compelling vision of what we share online, how we connect and communicate, how it can be used to build a picture of us and manipulated in skilled hands.
Searching opens in the UK cinemas on the 31st of August 2018.
- Searching (2018)