Former NatGeo photographer Charles O’Rear’s “Bliss,” known commonly as the default wallpaper of Microsoft Windows XP—the tech company’s most popular Windows OS iteration—is the first thing viewers see in Aneesh Chaganty‘s feature-length directorial debut, “Searching.” Now, it might not seem like much, but if you think about it, you’ll realize it was the right choice to kickstart the film’s first act. Much like the rise of the PC and internet in the 90s, the image is bound to take many of us down memory lane. There’s a certain allure to seeing the movie setting up its characters using nothing but saved recordings and old YouTube videos—with maybe some bittersweetness thrown into the mix, using nothing but the good old calendar app and an empty “What’s on your mind?” text-box in Facebook.
However, as the narrative progresses, viewers will discover this is just the beginning. Going against the Heightened Realism 101 rulebook in films of this kind, Chaganty underlines his storytelling with a terrific score and appropriate rhythm-heavy editing. Composer Torin Borrowdale (“The Midnight Man,” 2016) paints the many plot decisions with appropriately vivid and diverse brushstrokes of warmth, reflectiveness, tension, and anger, and co-editors Nick Johnson and Will Merrick seem only happy to collaborate; their edit decisions feel almost always in tandem with the music—and, as a result, the pulse—of “Searching.” This isn’t entirely surprising; producer Timur Bekmambetov (who, since directing “Ben Hur,” seems to have taken a vacation from conventional live-action filmmaking) has been interested in experimenting with various storytelling devices.
Between a first-person-shooter action comedy (“Hardcore Henry,” 2015) and a story told primarily through computer screens (Leo Gabriadze’s “Unfriended,” 2015), Bekmambetov seems to have taken an acute interest in the latter. Gabriadze’s horror-thriller might have been an excellent playground to experiment with because, with Chaganty’s film, the style attains a certain perfection. Take its virtual camerawork as an example. There’s an almost constant state of synthetic handheld motion, with faux crash zooms only complementing the accelerated sense of tension it provides. This might be a novel way to make a movie, but the makers use conventional film techniques to form a foundation. All of these nuts and bolts don’t matter, though; they only strengthen the film’s overall image system—and it helps that it’s built on a solid foundation already.
John Cho (“Columbus,” 2017) effortlessly essays the role of the distressed parent David Kim in search of his daughter Margot (Michelle La). Everything that he does within the film aligns well with real-world conversations online. If people on the receiving end disconnect the call, it only makes sense for the caller to trail off mid-sentence, confused. This and many other nuanced aspects of loss, fear, betrayal, and grief translate well onscreen. There are moments when long stretches of dialogue are through nothing but the act of sending messages. David’s investigation for possible clues leads him to many virtual social circles; her contact list and Facebook profile are just among the few places you see him looking through. Every click made in the process and every keystroke on the keyboard is given due attention. As a result, the rattling tension it creates makes the film a surprising nail-biter.
Joining him is Debra Messing (NBC’s “Will and Grace,” 1998-2020), who portrays the detective handling David’s case with great conviction. Her commitment to the role is fascinating, but what really does the trick here is that you’re convinced she’s a PD with little expository effort. Much of how she portrays her character makes it very easy for viewers to empathize with her, her world, and her difficulties. Unfortunately, despite Cho and Messing’s knockout performances and the film’s almost-constant sense of tension, the third act tends to feel abrupt. While that doesn’t derail the overall film experience, it does feel slightly disappointing to see an otherwise smooth ride end up with a few bumps on its way to the finish line. But with storytelling so solid and committed, these things tend not to affect you—you’re already way too interested in the interpersonal relationships of its characters and rooting for David to get his closure.
It’s why “Searching” works with almost clockwork precision through most of its runtime. Chaganty creates a film that not only makes you feel for people you know, mostly from live streams, messages, and FaceTime conversations. It’s a mystery thriller alright, but what makes the film even better is just how much it’s a commentary on the various personas people keep; you’re either the detective, parenting expert, or heartbroken empathizer online, but you couldn’t care less about a missing person when the spotlight’s not on you. An ever so slightly bumpy final act aside, Chaganty succeeds with “Searching” in ways you’d expect from a lot of conventional live-action thrillers—and, consequently, effectively brings in an innovative filmmaking style for the people of today. If you thought “Unfriended” or Nacho Vigalondo’s “Open Windows” (2014) may not have cut it for you, there’s a high chance “Searching” might persuade you to change your mind.
For a film told mainly through the perspective of smartphone and computer screens, Aneesh Chaganty’s “Searching” succeeds not just in making a gripping thriller but merging together revered film techniques and alternative storytelling devices to create a film that’s serious about the exploration of new-age filmmaking possibilities. Highly recommended.