Nifty technique provides great platform for talented filmmakers

Reviewers are comparing the technique used in Searching (dir. Aneesh Chaganty) to the ‘Found Footage’ genre, in which a handheld camera, controlled by one of the characters in the film, captures the action. This gives the audience an intimate, immediate account of the events, and is often marred by the fundamental question of why, in times of distress, anyone would keep the camera going. Although it produced a few classics (the first Paranormal Activity, REC), found footage to me always seemed a narrow filmmaking technique, which eventually devolved into run-of-the-mill scripted copies filmed seemingly by amateurs or children with terrible attention spans (Quarantine, The Gallows). It makes for a poor comparison to whatever we’re calling the Searching genre, reportedly beginning with Open Windows (2014) and becoming legitimised with Unfriended (2015), an innovative horror weighed down by its dunderheaded teen characters who all deserved their gruesome deaths. It’s a poor comparison because the use of screens, ranging from, in Chaganty’s film starring John Cho, Facetime calls, Windows desktops, security footage, hidden cameras, voice calls and scrolling text conversations, is much more versatile than a wobbly single camera.

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What Chaganty and screenwriter Sev Ohanian manage with Searching is to find the emotional underpinning of a life lived on screens, refreshingly veering away from the tired aphorism pedalled by aging Hollywood cynics about technology tearing us further apart.

Cho plays David Kim, a grieving single father whose life, with his daughter Margot (Michelle La) and wife Pamela (Sara Sohn) we see in a versatile montage of home videos and photos. They’re a happy family and a tight unit, whose dynamic is fractured when Pamela contracts cancer. Her battle is marked by recoveries and relapses, overjoyed returns home followed by steely resolves accompanying hospital revisits. A final picture shows Margot beginning high school, father and daughter barely smiling, the mother’s absence sorely felt.

Sohn and La do well with their characters, especially some of La’s later scenes via a fictional video chat platform, but in terms of acting, this really is Cho’s film. Early on, Margot doesn’t come home from a study group session which, she claims, via a Facetime call with Dad, is going all night. When she doesn’t show up the next morning and David finds out she left the study group early in the evening, David begins to worry.

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What’s so exemplary about Cho’s performance is how he charts the journey of worry and determination across his character’s face. Beginning with disbelieving fret, his worry gives way to fatigued focus until, eventually, he’s teetering on the edge of what every parent fears: that their child may not be coming back. Cho played the lead in last year’s Columbus, but it’s nice to see him proving his leading man qualities to wider audiences with this movie, the reputation of which seems to be spreading like a viral sensation.

Assigned to Margot’s case is Detective Vick, played by Debra Messing, another actor who makes you wonder why movies haven’t put her front and centre more often. The detective’s role, played with an impressive blend of determined professionalism and emotional attachment by Messing, demonstrates the sophistication of Ohanian and Chaganty’s screenplay. The dialogue between Vick and Kim is mostly all business, but they bond in fits and bursts, sharing a similar dedication to their only children.

Because the film is restricted to screens, it relies on the screenplay to deliver the really devastating points of action, namely through red herrings, twists and revelations. Sometimes the twisty plot ties itself into few knots—the film often seems like it’s going to end, and then doesn’t—but the attention to detail strings the plot together nicely. Each revelation can be traced back through dropped hints and insignificant details, suddenly making useless character details (like the brother’s big bag of weed on his bench, disapprovingly noted by David), integral to a later revelation. It’s wonderful to see screenwriters enjoy themselves so much, piecing the film together like a tricky puzzle, using the many storytelling devices at their disposal.

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What makes me so thrilled about Searching as a piece of filmmaking is partly what made the early found-footage boom so exciting: these films are made fairly cheaply, using environments and resources we have at home and around us, but they work because of the talent involved. Technique aside, Searching is a well-written and tightly plotted thriller whose depiction of grief is underplayed and whose commentary on technology (if there even is one) isn’t preachy or curmudgeonly. I figure, judging by this film’s early success, a wave of increasingly cruddy copycat films will follow this one, slipping in between tentpole blockbusters and seeking viral success, but at least this film shows opportunities for new, creative filmmakers to use at-home resources.