A surprisingly well executed “desktop drama”
I’ve loved John Cho since he took me to White Castle with Harold and Kumar back in 2004, but I have to admit, Searching held very little appeal for me. Having seen my share of short films made on shoestring budgets and “shot” through the laptop’s screen record function, I have witnessed first hand how incredibly difficult it is to make something compelling through the medium of keystrokes and mouse clicks. At best, these projects turn out gimmicky and at worst, very dull.
So, let me stand corrected. From an emotional opening montage of the Kim family, seen through their Windows XP desktop covered in family photos and videos, to tense scenes at the end spliced together in the form of online streaming services, Searching is a psychological thriller that dwells anxiously between the worlds we inhabit on and off our screens. These online connections are at once intimately personal and highly public, particularly as John Cho’s David Kim becomes a subject of public speculation.
The film follows David as he helps lead Detective Rosemary Vick’s (Debra Messing) investigation into the sudden disappearance of his daughter Margot, using her laptop to trace her digital footprint. In the years since his wife’s passing, David and Margot seem to have grown apart, their messages a series of routine instructions to empty the bin or pick up money for piano lessons. As David delves deeper into Margot’s personal life against a ticking clock, he discovers a new side to his daughter. She is more lonely than he realised. She’s no longer attending her piano lessons. She’s withdrawn a large sum of money from her bank account with no explanation.
Often we see David in real time, his FaceTime screen open to one side. We watch him as he watches videos of his daughter, or digs through her messages, or engages with her social media. Split into separate windows within the screen, David is essentially inside Margot’s private life - he uses her laptop and has access to all her accounts - but he cannot reach her. In this way, we also experience an unexpected (but familiar) side of grief and the grieving process.
David’s old computer is organised by his wife, who catalogued each of Margot’s primary school friends by surname and attached notes detailing their relationships. He can barely remember the name of Margot’s study group host. David’s inbox still holds old sympathy emails. His call records show he speaks almost exclusively to his brother, his daughter, and his boss. Old videos on his laptop are hidden from search results - it hurts too much to accidentally stumble across happy memories of his wife.
Well received at Sundance and critically acclaimed, writer and director Aneesh Chaganty struck gold with Searching, and I can’t say I want anyone to return to that mine. This is truly original and peerless work. John Cho plays David’s unfolding and insurmountable fear with absolute determination, very slowly chugging past logic toward absolute panic. In this way, Messing’s Detective Vick is a perfect foil. She is a pillar of calm and strength, sure-headed and strong-willed. Under Chaganty’s careful eye, they carry the story far outside the Kims’ computer screens.
In less precise hands, delving further into this distinct format would yield little more than fool’s gold.