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edge staff writer


‘Searching’ tells its story through screens

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Trying new things can be dangerous.

Experimenting with methods of cinematic storytelling is often risky. You want to stay true to the story and avoid technical distractions. You don’t want those choices to come off as superfluous and/or gimmicky. It’s a fine line between telling a story a new way and simply being different for the sake of being different.

The new film “Searching,” directed by feature first-timer Aneesh Chaganty from a script he co-wrote with Sev Ohanian, is a thriller revolving around a father whose daughter has disappeared. You’ve seen it a million times. However, this film unfolds entirely through communication technology – through FaceTime and laptops and group chats, through social media and text messaging and online video. Sure, that’s not a brand-new concept, but it’s certainly still new enough to catch your attention. And while other movies and TV shows have experimented with the idea, none have done so as successfully as this one.

David Kim (John Cho, TV’s “The Exorcist”) is a single father living in California. His wife Pamela (Sara Sohn, TV’s “Sense8”) passed away just a year ago and he is still grieving. That grief has left him struggling to define his relationship with his teenaged daughter Margot (Michelle La in her feature debut). The two fail to connect, unable to surmount that barrier that often exists between fathers and daughters.

That lack of connection means that when David doesn’t hear from Margot for a little while, he doesn’t give it a tremendous amount of consideration. But when she fails to turn up, he starts to panic. He starts calling her friends, only to discover that her relationships were little more than acquaintanceships – her peers knew almost as little about her life as David himself.

The police are called and a Detective Vick (Debra Messing, TV’s “Will and Grace”) takes the lead on the investigation. But it only when David finds his way into Margot’s laptop that he really begins to unravel the mystery – the mystery of not just where his daughter might be, but who his daughter was.

As time passes, things become more and more desperate. The hope of finding Margot safe becomes more and more remote. David is lashing out, clinging to any shred of potential evidence that could possibly help him find his daughter. Every single possible lead is explored and exhausted, often raising more questions that they answer. With every moment that passes, it becomes less likely that David will ever see Margot again.

And the clock is ticking.

“Searching” really is a remarkable technical achievement. The device of storytelling through devices tends to intrigue initially before ultimately proving rather ineffective; once the novelty wears off, there’s a nagging awareness of the artificiality of it all. Here, however, it maintains its impact throughout. The flexibility of the filmmakers to cycle through various methods (while relying heavily on FaceTime and its video messaging ilk) keeps things interesting and engaging; overall, the film is well-crafted enough to keep things interesting.

Obviously, there’s a commentary here on the ubiquity of these devices and how our connectedness in one respect has actually contributed to our disconnection in others. It’s tough to make a movie like this without that subtext. But that commentary never feels like the film’s raison d’etre; it’s all in service to the story.

And it’s a good story. It’s remarkably taut and tense considering the limitations inherent to the stylistic choices. There’s none of the flatness you might expect; everything has depth, both in terms of visual aesthetic and narrative cohesion. It’s smart and briskly paced, moving forward at a steady and relatively speedy clip.

Here’s the thing, though: absolutely none of this other stuff matters without John Cho. For a movie like “Searching” to work, you have to have an absolutely dynamite performance from your lead – and Cho more than delivers.

He’s a talented guy – we’ve seen him do good work across a broad range – but he has never been as good as he is in this movie. Watching his slow descent is mesmerizing; his journey from sad, out-of-touch dad into the realm of desperation and despair is just exceptional. His energy practically bursts out of the screen despite the generally static parameters imposed on him. It’s a nuanced, layered performance rendered all the more impressive by the limitations under which it was given. He’s awesome and a huge part of why the movie works.

Messing is very good as Detective Vick, finding ways to make the dynamic work despite rarely physically sharing a scene with Cho. Ditto La as Margot, whose performance is almost entirely solo. The fact that actual physical interaction is largely absent means that each actor is essentially on an island. Luckily, everyone handles their business with aplomb.

“Searching” isn’t a conventionally-told story, but it is absolutely a well-told one. Films like this show us the mainstream potential of continued cinematic innovation. It is compelling and intense and very, very good.

[5 out of 5]


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