Searching is a new kidnapping mystery that takes place entirely on the screen of its protagonist’s laptop. I’m glad I didn’t know that going in, because it sounds more like a cheap gimmick than it actually is, and if I’d skipped it I would’ve missed the ultimate evidence of John Cho’s remarkable evolution into a capable leading man. Cho has never been bad, but he’s so good here that it counts as a break out.
Cho, who we first loved as MILF Guy #2 in American Pie and later as Harold in Harold and Kumar, grows all the way up in the role first of loving then of heartbroken father, Peter Kim. Cho performs frequently without benefit of a scene partner in Searching, adding an additional degree of difficulty to an already defining role. Searching has a big performance and a big gimmick, and it’s hard to say which is the bigger discovery.
Right, so the laptop thing. It’s a conceit that combines Skype calls, texts, Facetime, web searches, and news videos into a kind of single-location thriller that isn’t really single location at all, because it’s flexible enough to allow for anything you might see on a laptop screen — which is pretty much anything these days, from on-location news footage exposition to private moments of introspection. Searching attempts all of them at one point or another. It uses this screen-time approach to set up the premise, in which Cho, as suburban San Jose single dad David Kim, texts and Facetimes his 16-year-old daughter, Margot (played by Michelle La) to ask about school and check up on her study group. Then, after a few missed calls in the middle of the night (we can see Cho sleeping in the Skype window as Margot’s calls go unanswered), Margot vanishes.
In trying to provide all the information he can to the police — and in particular to a detective named Vick, played by Debra Messing — Kim realizes he actually doesn’t know that much about his daughter’s life (as with To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, Margot’s mother has died young and persists only in loving flashbacks). He’s left to piece together her life from her social media footprint, in many ways getting to know her for the first time only now that she may be gone. This includes cyberstalking her circle of friends, frenemies and acquaintances, such as “DerekEllis6969,” who come to life, often hilariously, through juvenile Instagram comments and Snapchat videos. This is just a logical evolution of storytelling, as WeedLordBonerHitler and MAGAmom_420 have occasionally made their way into the mainstream political debate.
The entirety of Searching takes place within this laptop ecosystem, which would certainly qualify it as shtick, or a formalistic gimmick. The danger of any formalistic gimmick is that its efficacy as a marketing hook or press release peg will outstrip its ability to actually convey ideas. Like found footage, I’m not entirely convinced that Searching needed to stay inside the laptop once the aesthetic had been established, but this gimmick has practical utility that goes beyond artistic peacocking.
Equally important, writer/director Aneesh Chaganty and co-writer Sev Ohanian don’t use their clever conceit for some grand critique of social media. They treat this screen-ensconced society merely as something that is, not as a setup for a cautionary tale, or their screed about the world as they’d like it to be. Kids should get off their smart phones once in a while and go outside! is a thought that every dad thinks is profound at some point, and sounds just as old-man-yells-at-cloud every time. That ship has already sailed. Searching, wisely, and thankfully, isn’t that. Margot Kim doesn’t go missing because she’s on Instagram. She goes missing, and she’s on Instagram.
Searching plays like a thriller meets a whodunnit — combining the twin thrills of suspense and a scavenger hunt — and the screen format allows Chaganty some innovative ways to convey information. So much of what we might find in trying to unravel a mystery these days, we’d find on a computer screen. Because of that, Searching‘s screen shtick actually seems like less of a contrivance than the alternative — Chaganty depicting all those Google searches, Facebook comments, and online profiles as actual conversations, say. Which makes it seem less a gimmick than simply an elegant solution. In a lot of ways it finds a relevant place in the space between the found footage thriller and the true crime/murder mystery podcast.
The screen conceit unfortunately isn’t nearly so helpful for its actors. Every actor in Searching — from La’s Margot to Joseph Lee playing David’s younger brother, and perhaps none so much as Debra Messing, whose stilted performance here is more jarring than the rest because we’ve seen her do good work before — struggles with the new format. It’s understandably harder to do great acting work staring straight at the camera, as they often have to do in Searching, than it is playing opposite a real person in the room. The only actor who seems unperturbed by this conceit is Cho, whose earnest, empathetic performance stands out even more juxtaposed with the relatively mediocre ones around him.
If Searching stumbles at all in its march to a satisfying ending, it’s more a result of trying to come to a happy conclusion true to the genre than of the limitations of its own conceit. Otherwise, it’s a perfect example of how specificity of perspective (the Kims could be any family, but they’re specifically a Korean-American family in San Jose California in 2018) can elevate an otherwise trope-y genre exercise (the dead mom, the loving dad, the kidnapped daughter, etc etc). It’s probably not a movie that will change your life, but it is one that will leave you thinking “that John Cho is a hell of an actor” and “that was clever.”
I’m going to leave this on “more like this, please,” but clarify that I mean “smart genre filmmaking” and “innovative storytelling” and not “more movies taking place on laptop screens.”