A few weeks ago the body of a 14-year-old schoolgirl was discovered around the corner from where I’m sitting writing this review. Within hours of the tragic discovery, two 13-year-old boys had been arrested. The police had their work simplified by a series of damning posts across social media which pointed to the guilt of the boys in question. Increasingly, when young people go missing or have their lives taken from them, police investigations are now focused more on trawling through the victim’s internet history in search of clues rather than the pavement pounding of old.
Such an idea forms the premise of writer/director Aneesh Chaganty’s feature debut Searching, the latest in the growing sub-genre of thrillers and horror movies whose narratives play out within the frame of a computer screen. Like the under-appreciated Unfriended movies, this one is also executive produced by Timur Bekmambetov, who like Michael Bay, is a filmmaker who directs awful action movies but as a hands-off producer has given us some worthwhile entries in the horror genre.
Inspired perhaps by Pixar’s Up, Searching opens with a heart-breaking montage detailing the good times between David Kim (John Cho), his wife Pamela (Sara Sohn) and their young daughter Margot (in a somewhat stereotypical view of Asian-Americans, piano lessons figure heavily), until Pamela is diagnosed with cancer and eventually succumbs.
Two years after their loss, David and a now 16-year-old Margot (Michelle La) seem to enjoy a good relationship, though David appears to be a little over-protective of his teenage daughter, insisting she phone him with frequent updates on her whereabouts. One morning however David wakes to find Margot isn’t at home, and that he missed three calls from her in the middle of the night. All of his attempts to contact her fail, and checking with her school, David is told she never showed up. When he contacts Margot’s piano teacher he is shocked to learn his daughter hasn’t attended a lesson in six months, despite him giving her $100 to pay for each lesson.
With no clue as to the whereabouts of Margot, David contacts the police, and detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing), a sympathetic single parent herself, is assigned to the case. While Vick conducts her investigation, David begins one of his own, breaking into Margot’s laptop in search of leads. Mining through her online presence, David realizes how little he really knows about his daughter’s life, and begins to uncover some terrifying possibilities as to Margot’s disappearance.
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Unlike the Unfriended movies, which stick rigidly to their ‘desktop horror’ premise by playing out in real time with a static full shot of a PC screen, Searching’s action plays out over several days, with Chaganty’s camera zooming in to focus on specific onscreen details, integrating TV news reports and adding a non-diegetic score for effect. For those of us so impressed by the technical shrewdness of Unfriended and its sequel, such tactics feel a little like cheating, and as a result Searching isn’t quite the victory of form over content those films are.
What Searching does boast is an empathetic and compelling protagonist, something sadly lacking from the Unfriended series. Thanks in no small part to a gripping performance by Cho as the nerve-wracked father, we’re on board with David’s quest from the off, sharing his frustrations at his attempt to navigate a world that’s alien to him. Cho’s David is in some ways a less judgmental, more affable version of the angry father played by George C. Scott in Paul Schrader’s Hardcore, but like Scott’s character, his exposure to his daughter’s loss of innocence causes him to strike out violently, at one point hampering his investigation by attacking a teenage boy he believes has been lying to him.
Searching will likely play most effectively to parents as it takes a very modern approach to exploiting very modern fears. In many ways it’s a contemporary update on the sort of parental terror TV movies that were so popular in the 1980s, in which kids were being abducted, murdered and generally corrupted left, right and centre. Written and directed by and starring Asian-Americans, Searching also examines the worries minority parents have regarding how well their children will adapt to and be accepted by society. First and foremost it plays on the universal fear that we never truly know our children, but as Detective Vicks reassures David, isn’t that how it’s meant to be? If Searching plays as a horror movie for parents, imagine how terrifying its teen audience will find the idea of their father trawling through their social media.
3 ½ stars out of 5
Directed by: Aneesh Chaganty. Starring: John Cho, Joseph Lee, Debra Messing, Sara Sohn