Searching is what many might call a “desktop movie,” in that the story unfolds almost entirely through computer screens. The twist? Searching is also a mystery crime thriller, adding new meaning to the idea of an internet search. The central protagonist, a single father played by John Cho, must find his missing teenage daughter by investigating her secret life online, a prospect that would rightfully give any parent heaping amounts of anxiety.
And yet Searching is one of the most positive mainstream films about social media and today’s “always-on” technology—the gadgets that connect us to our wrists, pockets and even our cars. While most films about our online addictions tend to take a neutral stance or present as cautionary tales, Searching celebrates Silicon Valley’s purported vision for a more connected world, one where the masses actually use their devices in ways that bring them closer to others in real life. Being a thriller, it highlights the dangers of the dark web, too.
This balanced take on technology is no surprise considering the creative team involved. The writer and director, Aneesh Chaganty, is a former Google employee, and it’s clear he and his editors spent endless hours making sure every screen and window you see is authentically realized and layered with surprising details that develop the characters in unexpected, even innovative ways. When two people FaceTime each other, the real sounds are used to convey the message. Texts in the background tell hidden stories throughout the entire film that some audience members will delight in following along the way. Our hero isn’t the only person searching for clues.
In a lesser movie, this would be enough to recommend Searching as a refreshing film you haven’t really seen before. But what makes the film a must-see is its genuinely moving story. Searching is in no way a weak film elevated by gimmicky storytelling, as many of these found footage films tend to be. Nor is it very similar to Unfriended and its recent sequel. Those prototypical “desktop movies” had some fun horror tricks, but nothing consequential in the way of character or emotion.
Searching, by contrast, begins and ends with giving you, the viewer, a reason to care about the two people at the center of its mystery. The opening montage conveys the passage of time for a recognizably wholesome family from the days of Windows XP to today’s era of smartphones. It’s a beautiful and poignant vignette about how parents and their children use technology together, and it isn’t until they drift apart that the problems start. For that reason, Searching is more about how we use the internet and other modes of progress, not whether or not we should.
The intriguing mystery itself is, in some ways, secondary, with a small cast (including a dramatic role for Debra Messing) driving a fairly simplistic plot forward with just the right amount of twists, turns and fake-outs to stay a step or two ahead of most audiences. The film’s best moments, however, are the flourishes of common online behavior: when you start a text message but don’t finish it or have to start over, when you pour your heart out to a complete stranger, and so on. These seemingly small moments can also be devastating, like when a character stumbles upon a text conversation with truly disturbing revelations. It’s easy to relate to how much we don’t know about each other until we see what people are saying when no one is supposedly watching (or reading).
Chaos, confusion and heartbreak are just a few of the emotions at play throughout Searching. There’s also humor, joy and empathy mixed in to wonderful effect. This wide spectrum is what gives the film a chance to be timeless despite intentionally aging itself with era-specific apps and devices. It’s the kind of film Hollywood normally shies away from, because its genre isn’t quite so easy to narrow down and there’s no possibility of a franchise.
Searching is stand-alone, and rightfully so. It’s also one of 2018’s best films by a good margin. It taps into a raw nerve about online hopes and fears that our culture hungers for with a timely cinematic perspective. We may be close physically with each other in some cases, but do we truly know one another? The internet makes it easier than ever for us to live separate lives from the ones we love, and rather than confront them with our problems, we’re more likely to confess our deepest woes through an Instagram story. Searching doesn’t just set its stakes on that new reality, it leads the user to an important discovery of how we can turn this problem around.