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Friday, August 31, 2018

Searching

Searching is not the first thriller to be built around the gimmick that the entire film takes place on line via cameras, texts and video chats.  Just this July, we had the disappointing and unnecessary Unfriended: Dark Web.  However, this is easily the best attempt at the stylized approach we have had.  In fact, I could see this being one of the great films of 2018.  First-time feature director Aneesh Chaganty (a former employee of Google) has managed to use the limitations of filming solely on smartphones, browser windows and security cam footage, and has created not just an enthralling film, but one that is emotionally effective and has a ton of heart behind it.

John Cho, an actor who will probably eternally be associated with his starring role in the Harold and Kumar movies, delivers a powerful leading performance as David Kim, a widower in California who grows concerned with his 15-year-old daughter Margot (Michelle La) does not come home or return his texts.  The last time he heard from her was when she tried to contact him in the middle of the night, but he was sleeping and missed her calls.  Now, there's total silence, and none of her friends have seen her at school or at her usual hang outs.  As time passes and there is just no word or information, David becomes increasingly concerned, and files a Missing Persons report, which gets him contact with Rosemary Vick (a wonderful Debra Messing), a police detective who is a mother herself, and guides David through the difficult process of going through Margot's on line life, and search for any clues that may lead to learning about just what has happened.

As David and Rosemary go through Margot's videos, texts, on-line friends and personal blogs, they begin to piece together a life that Margot was afraid to share with her father, one concerning a lot of pain concerning the death of her mother and David's wife just two years ago.  It's something that has been difficult for them to talk about since it happened.  One of the brilliant moves that Chaganty does is to open the film with a touching montage of the on line family life of the Kims as Margot grew up.  We see birthdays, first days of school, piano lessons, and shared family moments leading up to the day when everything fell apart, and Margot's mother passed away after a long battle with lymphoma.  This does a wonderful job of building the main characters and their relationship in an efficient way, without sacrificing any of the heart and pathos.  This also leads to the film's central mystery.  Was Margot keeping anything else from her father?  Was she kidnapped, or possibly murdered by someone on her Friends List?

Searching occasionally leaves the computer screen to show us media reports as the search for the missing teen becomes major news.  We also get to see the effect the case has on the viral community, as her classmates leave passionate and forced tribute videos, and haters and trolls start hounding David on line, accusing him of being responsible for his daughter's disappearance.  All of this creates a surprisingly compelling narrative, despite the limited storytelling technique of mostly using video chats and texts to drive the action.  We are involved in the characters, and in the mystery itself.  There are quite a few red herrings, most of them pretty obvious.  But, the final answer to the mystery is fairly clever, and doesn't feel like a cheat.  When it was over, I was not only satisfied with the conclusion the mystery came to, but felt I had been told a complete story with interesting and honest characters.  

This is ultimately a detective story, with the father playing the role of an amateur sleuth as he pieces the information together, going through his daughter's on line history.  What's impressive is how the movie never lags, and how the quick editing creates a nail-biting pace as information is slowly revealed both to David and to the audience.  Why did Margot stop going to piano lessons six months ago, while still accepting the tuition money?  And what is with the large sum of money that she supposedly took out right before her disappearance.  The logical answer is that she might have run away, but digging deeper, that seems unlikely and that there is something more sinister at hand.  The movie skillfully unravels the plot details, keeping us completely engaged and wanting to know more.  This is the rare thriller that left me wanting to know more with each reveal.

But what's most impressive is how the movie never once feels gimmicky.  It is a complete and well thought out story that just happens to take place largely on a computer laptop screen.  In fact, the way it is filmed is an advantage, as it adds a touch of authenticity to the story.  It also helps create a commentary about just how much parents know about their children's lives on line, without being preachy or heavy handed.  This is not just a movie about the dangers of the Internet, nor does it sensationalize it with paranormal or silly plot elements like the Unfriended films.  It's a compelling human drama told through the lens of a computer monitor, and it's as highly effective and as engrossing as any other drama that's out there.

Searching is just an extremely well thought out film, and one that pays off in just about every way.  It's emotional, suspenseful and well-acted.  I can see this becoming a late-summer sleeper, and I truly hope it doesn't get lost in the shuffle of Labor Day Weekend, traditionally one of the worst weekends for the box office.  Did the studio release this movie on such a slow weekend because they have little faith in it?  I sure hope not, because they have a great movie here.

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