Let’s get this out of the way: Shooting a movie as though it were taking place on a computer screen is a stupid, stupid conceit. I didn’t like it when I saw Unfriended, and I don’t like it now. As someone who stares at a computer monitor for way too much of his life, I certainly have no interest in paying to do so on a giant scale. So I was prepared to hate writer/director Aneesh Chaganty’s low-budget psychological thriller Searching a priori, only to be pleasantly surprised that it wasn’t complete and utter garbage. True, I wasn’t convinced of that fact until the second half of the film, but in the post-blockbuster, pre-award-bait dumping ground that is September, I’ll take whatever modicum of optimism I can get.
Although Searching doesn’t hit its stride until about an hour in, there is one early indication that establishes Chaganty as a competent filmmaker off the bat. The first 10 minutes of Searching’s running time is a master class in efficient exposition, generating backstory, character development and emotional identification without belaboring any of its points through extraneous dialogue or wasted directorial flourishes. But it’s hard to have a flourish of any sort when your frame is limited to the confines of diegetic camera placements, and Chaganty’s use of FaceTime as his primary means of putting a camera on his actors’ faces is, for the most part, more effective than it has any right to be.
Aside from that initial push, Searching runs painfully slowly for a thriller — not unlike the Windows PC that provides the proscenium for the entirety of its action. Chaganty’s narrative hinges on recently widowed father David (John Cho) and his teen daughter Margot (Michelle La) — more specifically, the crux of the story is Margot’s unexplained disappearance and David’s efforts to unravel, with the help of a sympathetic detective (an almost unrecognizable Debra Messing), the mysteries of his daughter’s life through the trail of digital breadcrumbs left on her laptop. Once the plot threads start to come together, Searching is a remarkably adept little thriller with a significant twist that Chaganty protects through a subtle narrative feint, but the buildup to that point is nothing short of ponderous.
It’s difficult to make any real judgment calls on Chaganty’s direction considering the limitations he’s chosen to accept through his computer screen conceit, but he does at least find creative ways of disseminating story around that obstruction. Pacing is the film’s greatest flaw, but Cho and Messing carry the dramatic tension admirably and develop a disproportionate amount of emotional resonance given the extent to which their characters are underwritten. It’s a surprisingly well-constructed film, even if it strains credulity in places and seems a bit thin overall.
Is Searching a great film? Of course not. Is it something that I’ll continue to think about — or even remember having seen — by this time next week? Again, the answer is probably no. But it doesn’t overstay its welcome, it boasts a pair of relatively strong performances, and it never tries to punch above its weight class. Movies are an inherently escapist medium, and I can’t imagine a scenario in which I’ll ever be willing to fully accept films that drag me away from my computer just to look at another — but if you can get past the gimmick, Searching is about as successful as it could be given the circumstances.