Film Review: ‘Searching’ is Much More Than Just a Gimmick

Remember when found footage was all the rage? The method of filmmaking has worn thin, obviously, but there was a time when it was cutting edge. Now, the new trend could be a sub-genre set on computer screens. The first film to truly pull it off is “Searching,” a mystery wrapped in some truly effective family drama. Taking place entirely through various screens, the movie ends up being less about the novel concept than you’d think. The approach says something timely about how we live our lives in 2018, but mostly it serves as a gateway into the story. That’s where the flick truly succeeds. Before slightly getting too silly at the end, it’s an enthralling tale that brings out a surprising emotion. This is, under the radar, one of the better titles of the year.

“Searching” is also a welcome bit of genre representation. Coming off of Asian Week here at The Awards Circuit, we have a film that isn’t about a white family. John Cho is the face you see on the screen in essentially every scene. This is the story of him and his daughter, and the fact that it’s not a white male at the center of it all is a nice change of pace. Of course, it’s more about story and execution than mere representation. You can have the most diverse film possible, but it doesn’t matter if the quality isn’t there. Luckily, that’s not the case. The movie is actually terrific.

After an opening montage that introduces us to the Kim family (and evokes “Up” and its simple emotions), we see the groove that father David (Cho) and teenager daughter Margot (Michelle La) have gotten into. They’re both dealing with the loss of wife/mother Pamela (Sara Sohn) in different ways. Neither talks to the other about it, however. For the most part, David is content to just be a normal dad, convinced his daughter is a well behaved young lady. Then, Margot doesn’t come home.

Initially, he thinks she’s just up to teenage shenanigans, but after too much time passes, the authorities get involved. Detective Vick (Debra Messing) encourages John to use Margot’s computer find out more about her. David collaborates with Vick, as well as his brother Peter (Joseph Lee), slowly coming to the conclusion that something awful happened to her. Worse, he begins to realize just how little he knew about her. Staring at a laptop and various other devices, he learns just what he’s been oblivious to about Margot.

Don’t underestimate how tricky this role is. John Cho is aces here, and again, he’s doing it all as if you’re Skyping with him. The visual choice actually winds up being to his benefit, as it’s not distracting like found footage. Instead, you get to really notice his facial expressions, especially when he’s in pain. So much of the movie relies on his eyes and face. The way he slowly unravels the mystery, the exhaustion on every inch of him, it’s top-notch work. He’s our complete focal point, way more so than the computer tabs on the screen, so it was essential that he nails the role. Boy oh boy, did he ever. After “Columbus” last year and “Gemini” earlier this spring, he’s having a moment.

Understandably, Cho is where most of the attention goes. What little we see of Michelle La, Joseph Lee, and Sara Sohn, they’re mostly in the service of Cho. No spoilers about how we see any of them, but it’s clear that he’s the focal point. As for Debra Messing, she gets to play a vital role, but her character is the least realistic feeling. While everyone else feels like they could be in a documentary, she feels like fiction. It’s a small issue, but part of what keeps “Searching” from being a four-star film.

Co-writer and director Aneesh Chaganty does yeoman work here. The script he penned with Sev Ohanian is an emotional core to latch on to, while his direction is in service of those feelings. The way that some found footage flicks can feel dependent on the concept, “Searching” never does. That’s a credit to Chaganty. The same goes for editors Nicholas D. Johnson and Will Merrick. They had to sift through, presumably, an insane amount of footage to piece it together in this way. Credit where credit is due, as they really pull it off. Almost all of the movements are supposed to be David’s, and they never make you question it. If not for a third act turn towards the melodramatic, this would be nearly awards worthy.

Nothing can prepare you for “Searching.” The way it builds up your curiosity level while filling up your heart, it’s something special. Genre affairs rarely have the brains and emotion that this film contains. Sure, it makes a pitch for movie logic and a less realistic conclusion towards the end, but it merely keeps a great film from being even better. This is going to surprise a lot of people. You may go in expecting something small, but the impact it leaves is far larger than you know. Consider yourself warned, in the best way possible.

“SEARCHING” IS DISTRIBUTED BY SCREEN GEMS AND OPENS IN THEATERS ON AUG. 24.

GRADE: (★★★½)