To distinguish itself immediately from the Unfriended series, Aneesh Chaganty’s Searching opens with a sequence that compresses a decade’s worth of Margot Kim’s (Michelle La) childhood. The exposition dump depicts the trauma of Margot losing her mother to cancer and her entry into high school; her father David (John Cho) sticking by her side. It’s an intriguing move, a notably swift, exquisitely edited example of narrative economy that also summons some rather uncomfortable feelings about Chaganty’s manipulative use of saccharine musical cues and blasé plotting. Those two qualities become more pronounced as Searching screeches at numerous points before stumbling upon its dunderheaded conclusion. It’s baffling, really, that anyone could suggest that Searching’s narrative trajectory is any less insipid or dumb as what we get from the Unfriended films. At least those films resist the banalities that we get from Searching.
Perhaps I’m being a bit harsh, as the film’s opening passages possess some inventive formal devices. Viewed primarily from the perspective of David’s laptop, Searching’s opening passages remark on our daily interactions with our screens. And as the plot mechanics kick in, there are some notable sequences that find David attempting to discover the whereabouts of his missing daughter. As David involves the police, he participates in the investigation by identifying and questioning every one of Margot’s Facebook friends, compiling a Google spreadsheet of pictures and names, interviewing each person through FaceTime. These procedural moments are thoroughly felt and the closest we get to something suspenseful from Searching, which utilizes the desktop filmmaking prospect not as a compressed race for time but as an exhaustive, never ending stream of dead ends. David’s attempts to piece together what happened to Margot from the limited data he’s able to acquire is used as a dramatic device to exemplify the distance that came between father and daughter. It’s during this middle portion of the film that Searching is at its most creative and intriguing, where the puzzle is less about a kidnapping and more about the false perceptions we tend to have of people around us when all our data is being extracted from Instagram photo streams or Facebook profiles.
But the film’s third act swerve is a banal mess filled with incestuous red herrings and crooked cops. Chaganty is less interested in presenting the details of his plotting in interesting ways and rather relies on television and surveillance camera footage to keep the plot moving. Even the way he compresses time begins to lose its sense of urgency. As Chaganty strays away from examining the relationship between father and daughter, he begins to examine our consumption and interaction with the media. His insights are terribly simplistic, as he relies on simplistic examples of viral footage that seem so terribly out of place within the context of the film. Films like Unfriended: Dark Web and even Eighth Grade examine our relationship with screens in a much more persuasive, and fundamentally interesting way than what we get from Searching, where for the first time I can recall, the desktop film feels more like a gimmick than something vital to the filmmaking itself.