Toss in a completely unorthodox way of putting the production together, and there are an almost infinite number of ways for the project to crash and burn. And when it comes to veering away from the familiar path, few productions have gone into such a crazy creative orbit as “Searching.”
Despite so many ways to go wrong, “Searching” works both as a smart and fascinating thriller and as a wonderfully creative way of telling the tale. The best part is that writer-director Aneesh Chaganty never had to resort to any unfounded leaps in the story just to get to his conclusion. He establishes a compelling story, spreads the clues in plain sight and then brings it all together in a satisfying and tantalizing finale.
Let’s start with the story. After David Kim’s (John Cho) teenage daughter vanishes, a local police investigation is opened, with detective Vick (Debra Messing) assigned to the case. After no leads surface after a day and a half, Kim decides to search the one place no one has looked yet – his daughter’s laptop. This is a world full of dead ends, revelations about the teen and a source of potential clues to what has happened.
Along with producing a taut thriller, Chaganty balances the story with very human moments. It takes only a few moments during the opening to establish the relationship among father, mother and daughter. Once an investment is made in them, the twists and turns come through with far more tension.
Nestled between these two major story elements is a compelling commentary about what it means to live in a world where social media is more addictive than most drugs. The need to be validated is often beaten into submission by the cruelty of the faceless beings typing away at their keyboards. This is a world of connections and misconnections.
All of these plot points are delivered through a cinematic format that has never been used to this extent. Instead of the standard filmmaking practice of pointing cameras at actors and editing together their actions and responses captured from multiple angles, Chaganty opts to tell his story as if the viewer were seated at a computer screen next to the distraught dad.
The images are a mix of computer screens on which the frustrated father searches for information with conversations held via Skype. The director mixes the computer images with television news reports, cellphone conversations, security camera footage and any bit of technology used to capture digital images. What this does is strip away the conventional wall that separates the actors and audience, pulling both together into a new symbiotic way of telling and seeing a story.
This in-your-face style works only if Cho can get across the emotions of the moment even when dialogue is jettisoned in preference to seeing the images from the computer screen. Cho’s face sells each drop of emotions from angry parent to terrified father.
Don’t confuse this with the much overworked “found footage” genre. Those movies can still edit together multiple angles, depending on how many potential victims can run with their camera phones working. There also have been a few films to use internet footage, including the 2014 release “Unfriended.” Past efforts like that one have counted more on the stagnant shots that can be picked up through the camera on a computer. There’s more energy to the way Chaganty works, because the images are very different.
Chaganty has put together with “Searching” evidence that a film can be technologically different without have to reject elements such as fascinating characters, clever storytelling and deep personal moments. In the case of “Searching,” go for the story and stay for the visual design.