Searching turns what could have been a gimmicky set-up into a relatable medium to deliver a serviceable missing-person thriller, thanks to a script that doesn’t lose track of its human story.
After David Kim (John Cho)’s 16-year-old daughter goes missing, a local investigation is opened and a detective is assigned to the case. But 37 hours later and without a single lead, David decides to search the one place no one has looked yet, where all secrets are kept today: his daughter’s laptop.
Filmmakers have experimented with digital to target grown-up millennials who now make a huge chunk of the consumer market. Unsane was shot with an iPhone and Hardcore Henry gave us real life Doom. The former worked well thanks to Soderbergh while the latter is a disposable novelty that Kill Switch failed to pull off. It’s a hit and miss.
Fortunately for Searching, it has a sensible script that keeps the movie focused on the human side of the story, preventing its set-up from turning into a gimmick. The missing person mystery thriller unravels through a desktop screen and jumps between different websites and apps, but the plot always ties it back to the fractured family at its center. It’s a digital kind of visual storytelling with purpose. In one of David Kim’s searches, a Windows XP desktop is displayed onscreen. The Norton anti-virus pop-up alert reminds us that it hasn’t been outdated for more than a year because its user is already gone.
This kind of detailing is peppered throughout the story, supported by great performances. The millennial and Gen Z moviegoers will relate to online sequences including “resetting” email passwords and social media “research”. The older audiences will relate to the domestic drama and parenting woes in the internet age. There’s also an interesting satire here about people’s response online – Imgur memes, thoughts and prayers and Reddit theories.
While the set-up makes Searching a modern thriller, the medium also limits the impact of the story. The language of cinema has a way of establishing mood, tone, and characterization that a bunch of screens can’t do. It doesn’t help that the plot is setback by miraculous twists, convenient coincidences, and a clunky resolution. In hindsight, Searching is just like any other generic and manipulative missing-person thriller when you take away its technique.
Searching would have been more interesting if there were a psychological puzzle tucked inside it. Our online behaviors leave breadcrumbs that you can piece together and create an entirely different image of a person. Our search history reveals more about ourselves that we let on in the real world, where you don’t have a username and computer that you can hide behind.
In fairness, that’s not what this movie set out to do. Searching offers a timely twist to a conventional missing-person thriller, delivering an absorbing mystery for millennials who lived through the evolution of Microsoft Windows.