This played at Sundance this year, but I didn’t see it. The fact that I don’t remember what I saw instead should tell you I got the losing end of that decision. I wish I would have seen it back in January, because then I could have told you sooner how amazing Aneesh Chaganty’s debut Searching is. It’s easily at the top of the webcam subgenre of horrors and thrillers, an immaculately constructed and endlessly thrilling work. If Brian De Palma made a webcam movie, it would look a little something like this. I walked in expecting a half-decent time, I walked out having seen one of my favorite films of the year.
Searching kicks off when newly widowed father David Kim (John Cho) can’t get ahold of his 15-year old daughter Margot (Michelle La). Eventually he figures out that she’s missing and begins an intense search for her, all told to us over computer screens.
Aneesh Chaganty proves right out the gate he’s really good at telling you a story and giving you information. In the first few minutes, we follow a whole family’s history as they purchase their first computer, and get the intimate details of their lives that only a person’s files and search histories could contain. It’s an emotional sequence that is much more heart-wrenching than it has any right to be, but it quickly grabs hold of you and attaches you to these characters. Chaganty has plenty of twists and turns in store throughout this film, and each one is a bonafide “Daniel Craig Glasses” moment. What’s that, you say? In David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, there’s a part where Daniel Craig slowly takes off his glasses in shock at discovering the answer to the whole mystery. It’s great. I kept taking off my imaginary glasses several times in Searching. There was only one turn the film took that I caught onto beforehand. Seriously, this film has a lot of surprises for you, each one more thrilling and chilling than the last.
John Cho came up in the industry as a comedic actor, but don’t discount his dramatic chops. He’s been a steady presence in the Star Trek films, and if you haven’t watched season 2 of The Exorcist (RIP) you’re missing out on some of his best overall work. In Searching he’s just tremendous, you’re completely gripped by him. He’s nailing every moment, you just buy him as this desperate father who’s lost control of what’s happening around him. For all the appealing technical aspects of Searching and Chaganty’s storytelling strength, this film wouldn’t work for a second without Cho.
I’m a sucker for the recent wave of webcam thrillers and horror films. I enjoyed the hell out of Unfriended and had a good time with its sequel Unfriended: Dark Web earlier this summer. They’re a subgenre that commits to its gimmick and continually finds new and innovative ways to tell the story. Searching doesn’t just commit to the gimmick – by embracing the inherent limitations in its construction, it transcends them and perfects the webcam film.
It’s the first webcam film to acknowledge the fact that this is a film, and embrace the cinematic nature of the story. Chaganty will slowly zoom in on pertinent information just as we and David figure things out, or cut to closeups of the screen for a similar effect. The score by Torin Borrowdale contributes greatly to the cinematic feel of the film, crafting a thrumming and uneasing score that ramps up as you put the pieces together, accelerating the rush of it all. You feel like you’re watching an amazing true crime documentary with this score, adrenalizing what attracts us all to terrible things.
Also, I’m just glad this movie has a sense of humor too, there are some pretty hilarious moments that Chaganty peppers in throughout. Chaganty, all the while keeping you on the edge of your seat, works in small little nuggets of social commentary that I loved. How people present themselves online is only one part of them. Tragedy will always be exploited and commodified in the age of the internet. The line between tragedy and entertainment has become so blurred in our society. In a video of David that circulates online, the top comment is “This is like a real-life Making a Murderer”.
Searching is a cinematic revelation. Even though it’s not the first of its kind, I felt like I was watching something I’d never seen before in the history of film. It’s a transcendent experience. I wanted to get up in the middle of the film and shout at the rest of the audience “ISN’T THIS AWESOME???” My head is going to be spinning for days off the high of this film. For a film that takes place on a computer screen, it demands to be seen in the largest cinematic format possible. You’re not going to see anything like Searching this year, no matter how long and far you search.