Searching may seem like a pass on paper: yet another thriller that plays out on computer screens. From Unfriended to Modern Family, viewers have seen this schtick before. To potentially complicate matters further, this one comes from a brand-new director.
But Aneesh Chaganty is not new to telling stories through screens—the Searching director and co-writer spent two years making ads at Google. He famously landed the role after making a viral short called “Seeds” that leveraged Google Glass, another creative constraint. “I quit my job at Google in NYC and moved to LA to make an indie movie,” he tells Ars about Searching. “But I was a filmmaker at Google; I was writing, developing, and directing commercials there. And a lot of my job was to take technology and give it a larger emotional narrative that people understand.”
So even if the premise of screen movies feels pervasive nowadays, you haven’t quite seen one like what Chaganty and his co-writer/producer Sev Ohanian (Fruitvale Station) have put together. Searching, starring John Cho and Debra Messing, arrives in theaters this week. And within the first 10 minutes, this new film offers more than another run-of-the-mill “screen movie.”
Windows XP as supporting actor
Without spoiling specifics: if you’re familiar with Up and its epic introduction, Searching does something similar—this rendition just involves Windows XP‘s best on-screen performance to date. Loving father David (Cho) simply adds a folder labeled “Margot,” and soon audiences sweep through a surprisingly natural-feeling montage of his young daughter’s life all done through a laptop screen. David browses old first-day-of-school pics, we see calendar invites for piano lessons, and annoying pop-ups say hello as a young kid tries to get her PC gaming on.
Chaganty and Ohanian say that coming up with the concept of this opening changed their minds about whether a full-length feature would be artistically worth the effort. “There was a lightbulb that went off, and we suddenly had this massive line between what other films have done on screens before and what could be done with ours,” Chaganty says. “We felt ours could be cinematic, engaging, emotional.”
After seeing Searching, his words don’t feel like total bravado. Almost immediately, the visual language is more complex and cinematic than other screen stories. Whereas many of these tend to operate with a steady point of view (of an entire laptop or phone screen or within full windows of applications like FaceTime and Skype), Searching utilizes more traditional direction and cinematography.
Ohanian compares Searching to how early film relied on a stationary camera and action unfolding before it, while modern filmgoers expect a certain level of composition, editing, point of view, and other aesthetic thought. For Searching, that means the camera may zoom in and follow an arrow as David slowly brings himself to delete an old folder, or it could observe how a missed FaceTime notification against a retro screensaver can become an anxiety-inducing tick-tock. Searching doesn’t limit itself to computer screens, either, given how our everyday lives have so much screen real estate to offer. It runs the gamut from home-security devices and public-access livestreams to traffic cams and local news.
Chaganty readily admits he learned how to do this kind of emotional screen work while at Google. “Despite the fact you won’t see someone’s face, you can still show how they feel,” he says. “And realizing that was possible, it felt like learning a language I never knew I knew. What I want to do with Searching is hopefully make audiences feel the same way.”
He and Ohanian put a lot of time into making popular script software Final Draft work for them and detailed each cursor movement or letter entered into a URL. And after debuting Searching at Sundance, Chaganty told CNET his editing sessions often involved 30+ layers of video (and thus frequent crashes). But all the effort has paid off, as this Google-fu visual skill has been put to good use throughout.
Luckily, Searching‘s story works, too. Ohanian mentions that he and Chaganty kept themselves honest while writing. They insisted that every scene, bit of dialogue, or moment of emotion had to work “outside the central conceit of how the movie is put together.” So Searching quickly reveals itself as a classic lost-kid thriller—a few unreturned phone calls from Margot lead David to discover she hasn’t been at school or piano lessons this week. Soon, he’s working with missing persons expert Detective Rosemary Vick (Messing) to gather clues both digital and IRL.
But just as the filmmaking eschews its genre, the story doesn’t quite play out like a classic missing-kid thriller, either. The story’s digital bent introduces wrinkles to the premise, like reconciling social media personality with reality, dealing with Reddit sleuths and catfishers, and navigating the odd ways technology allows people to deal with and/or ignore hardships and hard truths.
Cho in particular works well as David, an adult with good but not unrealistic tech savvy. He may need help understanding why his daughter does AmA videos on something called YouCast (the film uses a few made-up entities but largely hews to real-world platforms). But this father knows how to track her Venmo history and hack into a Facebook account via some password reset hijinks.
This actor also knows how to demonstrate the weight of what would be a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad week—Cho’s face and tone of voice do a lot of heavy lifting given the physical restrictions the screen shot compositions can impose. As such, plenty of Searching relies on him and likely ends up better for it. Between his performance and Michelle La‘s quiet vulnerability as Margot (in another tricky role, largely acting out chats between lonely teens online or taking forlorn selfies), Hollywood now has two strong Asian-American-led films in theaters simultaneously.
Searching may not be perfect—some viewers may spot reveals in advance or feel they ring false; a few crucial moments of dialogue are a little on the nose—but the journey to its final reveal proves to be more fun than you’d ever expect another screen movie to be. Taking seemingly known entities and combining them in this unique way makes for a tense, enjoyable thriller that often zigs when pop culture history leads you to expect a zag. Chaganty and Ohanian certainly do something impressive with their first big-screen script, but expect their next outing to not involve so much constraint.
“We put ourselves in a cube, and the only way to make this cube interesting was to play with every surface, flipping it over, twisting it around, playing with every upside-down version,” Chaganty says. “But we’re still in a cube.”
Listing image by Sony / Sebastian Baron
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