Spanning 90 minutes, Aneesh Chaganty’s “Searching” is one of the best films of the year.
The film follows Silicon Valley resident David Kim, played admirably by the always-dependable John Cho, as he breaks into his daughter’s computer after she goes missing and uses her digital footprint to put together a timeline of events before her disappearance.
From the get-go, it is clear that the film’s method of shooting from the point of view of smartphones and computer screens is not just a gimmick.
Beginning with a heartbreaking montage of memories collected online from the familiar Windows desktop background of the early 2000s to today’s iPhones, the pre-credits depicts a family’s struggle with the mother’s cancer diagnosis and later death.
Not only does this serve the purpose of essential exposition, charting out the main characters’ personalities and inner lives, but this “Up”-inspired montage also depicts a changing world, as technology moves from something strange and clunky to something that becomes an extension of the person the device belongs to.
And then, once the title card hits, the film is free to move into the meat-and-potatoes of the plot: 16-year-old Margot Kim’s disappearance after her AP biology study group.
The film’s unique all-screen perspective does not limit the direction in any way, the mise-en-scène as brilliant as any film shot from the usual objective third person perspective.
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Whereas 2014’s “Unfriended” does deserve some credit for being the first to the game of shooting an entire film from computer and iPhone screens, it is in “Searching” that the method moves from window dressing to real cinematic form.
For in today’s society, phones and computers are how people put a version of themselves out into the world, with the texts that aren’t sent just as essential a piece of that simulacrum as the photos that are posted on Instagram.
In “Searching,” the inner lives of David and Margot Kim are brought out for the audience to see, specifically the parts of their lives that they do not reveal to each other, as David Kim’s inability to discuss his wife’s death places a strain on Margot Kim.
For 90 minutes, “Searching” is able to do something never really done before and do it well, generating nail-biting suspense and heart-wrenching drama. Then, the film falls victim to the Achilles’ heel of many a well-made mystery: the final reveal.
It is perhaps the biggest testament to this style of filmmaking that the flaw lies not in the all-screen method, but in the summation.
In fact, while the connecting thread that was revealed to run through the plot was too far-fetched and cliched in service of a traditional Hollywood ending, the direction of those closing moments are brilliant with a final stare down between Cho’s David Kim and the perpetrator he has been hunting, the film’s runtime being an especial masterstroke.
In this way, to paraphrase Shakespeare, whatever small faults found in this film lie not in its stars but in itself.
“Searching” is a well-made mystery thriller, even as its plot moves away from the groundbreaking spirit that created it, and it will serve as a poignant surprise for those who are looking for something more than mindless entertainment in the pre-Oscar season doldrums.
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