‘Searching’: John Cho’s Bold Internet Thriller Is the Anti-‘Black Mirror’
The John Cho-starring mystery movie unfolds entirely across computer screens, and its bold embrace of technology is near-revolutionary.
On the growing shelf of movies that fall under the genre “Technology is Weird and Scary,” there will be one that’s set just a little bit apart from the rest: Aneesh Chaganty’s Searching, a missing girl mystery that’s both conventional thriller and pioneering twenty-first century artifact. It’s the sort of movie that snarky watchers could just as easily accuse you of over-thinking as under-thinking: it conceals a meaningful dispatch from the front line of digital footprint dread, along with a leap forward for Asian-American visibility, within a premise as easy to summarize as an episode of Blue’s Clues.
In the movie, which marks Chaganty’s writing and directorial debut, a protective dad sets out to locate his missing daughter. The catch is that the entire story transpires across computer screens—through FaceTimes and text messages, on Facebook and Reddit, in YouTube clips and computer files. We get to know David Kim (John Cho), his wife Pam (Sara Sohn), and daughter Margot (Michelle La) in an opening montage piloted by a computer mouse on an old Dell PC. Through photo and video files, iCal reminders and emails, the montage charts the history of the Kim family: Margot’s birth and growth, Pam’s cancer diagnosis and battle with the disease, David’s immense pride in his daughter and grief after his wife’s passing.
The sequence gives way to a regular night at David’s. He FaceTimes Margot, who says she’ll be out late at a friend’s study group. But when he misses multiple calls from her in the middle of the night and she doesn’t show up at school the next day, David gets worried. We witness his mounting panic through his computer camera (he leaves the FaceTime application open on his screen) and iMessage texts with his goofy younger brother. Eventually, David calls the cops, who enlist the help of a devoted detective, played by Debra Messing.
The hunt continues for days, gaining national attention as it grows knottier with confounding clues and missing puzzle pieces. Reaching out to Margot’s friends and sleuthing through her Facebook, Instagram, and online chatrooms, David begins to form an outline of his daughter that feels enigmatic and unfamiliar. “I know my daughter,” he starts off asserting to whomever will listen. But his confidence begins to falter. How could he not have noticed that she’d been skipping piano lessons? When had she turned so sullen and withdrawn that she lost all her friends at school?
Cho is a commanding agent of suspense, which he put to work as a detective in last year’s neo-noir Gemini. Still, as has been noted with campaigns like #StarringJohnCho, it’s rare for Asian-American actors to headline big-studio films—or even to have a role at all that doesn’t explicitly require their minority identity. Chaganty, who is Indian, and his cowriter and producer Sev Ohanian, who is Armenian, have both noted how important it was to them to use their movie as a space that could begin to rectify that.
Despite David’s unique situation, his father-daughter relationship with Margot has a universal quality. He’s cautious, she’s maturing. Both are still reeling from Pam’s death, in their own private ways. “I didn’t know her. I didn’t know my daughter,” he admits, dejected, once the search has grown into its most frenetic. Yet as he begins to unravel the mystery, David’s revelations seem to stem from a special fatherly insight. As much as Margot’s internet presence feels foreign to David, the movie hints at a connective tissue that runs deeper than anything you can share online.
Still, Searching doesn’t set up technology as a menace. In the end, David’s computer findings prove useful in ways nobody can anticipate. Technology may not be the answer to his search, but it definitely provides the tools he needs to get there. It’s this that sets Searching apart from other modern movies confronting the digital realm, even ones considered indie (Eight Grade) or arthouse (those of Olivier Assayas). As a general rule, technology is depicted as dangerous and dystopian—perilous and antithetical to humanity. That Chaganty optimistically embraces technology both in form and theme is near-revolutionary.
Cinema’s great trick is its ability to submerge watchers within an artificial world. Searching, an ultimate POV experience, somehow goes even deeper: watching David work—typing and deleting, opening and closing browsers, saving things to his desktop—is kind of like hacking inside his brain. Yet the movie never feels futuristic; rather, it’s emphatically of the moment. And for anyone who doesn’t want to overthink it, just enjoy it as a damn good mystery from a brand-new talent.