'Searching' is more than its computer screen gimmick

Searching is the movie that takes place inside the computer screen. This is the film’s identity, for better or worse. It’s how Searching is being marketed, and it’s how you’d describe it to your friends.

This is both reductive and a compliment. Searching is a movie that’s so much more than its gimmick, but it’s also a movie that is fascinating precisely because of this trick. In the same way that The Blair Witch Project was formally inventive with found footage, Searching uses the digital realm as both a visual and thematic device.

The story at the center of the film is simple: John Cho plays David, a father whose daughter Margot (Michelle La) goes missing. A local detective (Debra Messing) takes the case to track her down, but David also takes the investigation into his own hands. As he dives deeper into his daughter’s disappearance, he discovers that she may not have been who he thought she was.

Searching, in taking us down this rabbit hole, becomes the latest addition to the neo-noir genre. In classic noir films, an investigation into something small reveals something much larger and often more sinister, and as the discoveries expand so does the world itself. The concept of space is essential to the genre, and Searching plays with space in interesting ways.

Unlike Chinatown or L.A. Confidential, David does not have a physical city that he can explore as the mystery grows. He has the Internet. But director Aneesh Chaganty does an excellent job presenting the Internet in a way that’s true to how it feels like it functions in our lives: confined, yet infinite. Searching is a claustrophobic film, and the limited scope of the screen space often adds to the tension. But we also see the expansiveness of the Internet, and as David finds his way into contact lists, chat rooms, and anonymous money transactions, it feels like we are discovering a seedy underbelly just like in Chinatown. Searching also doesn’t confine itself to one screen: we move between phones, laptops, tv cameras, security footage, and more throughout the film.

Keeping the film within these screens also affects our understanding of the characters. Simply seeing how David organizes his photos, or how painstakingly he has to comb through contacts to find someone who might know Margot, are subtle tricks Chaganty uses to call attention to David’s loneliness and isolation. As the mystery grows, the image of David within the FaceTime box makes him feel smaller and powerless. I also loved the clever use of iMessage: David will type out a message, reconsider, and then retype and send a different message, allowing us insight into how he presents himself and what he’s really thinking. We see this dynamic, of presented identity versus actual personality, play out among other crucial characters as well.

The film’s visual device works thematically as well. As David learns more about who Margot really was, it doubles as commentary on how the Internet functions as a tool that encourages deception, how we go searching on the Internet for a version of ourselves that was right in front of us the whole time. And yet Searching doesn’t dismiss the Internet, either; it may be filled with artifice, but it is undeniably just as much a part of our social context as the real world. The most striking thing about Searching might just be how normal it felt for the movie to take place within a screen.

Searching follows in the footsteps of one its best neo-noir predecessors, Brick. Noir is about searching for one thing and finding another, and Brick took that idea and used it to bring the social alienation of adolescence to the fore. Searching is doing the same thing to the Internet, using David’s misguided search for his daughter as a backdrop to explore our use of the Internet as the setting for a misguided search for ourselves.

Like most great noir movies, we get a big revelation at the end of the film. Unlike others noir, though, it’s a little tidy. I wish Chaganty had left more questions unanswered. But Searching is a tense film full of unexpected turns, and John Cho, who’s on screen for nearly the entire movie, is incredible. He submits an Oscar-worthy performance in the type of movie that will never earn one.

Even if Cho doesn’t get an Oscar nod, I have a feeling this movie will stick around. It’s prescient, and I think it’s going to look representative of our time. Many representative films of our time take on the biggest issues in new ways, like Get Out. But Searching is doing something almost the opposite, and nearly as difficult: taking something so deeply woven into the fabric of our lives that it’s almost unnoticeable and taking a closer look.

Searching: 3.5 stars