The found footage movement never died, it merely shed its old skin; adapted to new surroundings and a new age of tech. As Unfriended demonstrated just three years ago, why rely on shaky hand-held cameras to ensure lower production costs when one could get away with even less funds using stationary webcams? To be fair, this particular evolution beyond the pre-existing formula hasn’t yet further explored new territory besides a sequel with the same conceit, but one can only imagine how films of this ilk will modify along with improvements in visual technology. From Sean Baker’s Tangerine to this year’s Unsane from Steven Soderbergh, even Park Chan-Wook’s award-winning short film Night Fishing, with prominent directors fully realizing the iPhone’s filmmaking capabilities, albeit for niche projects, it’s only a matter of time before the odd genre picture each year is told through FaceTime.
Or, perhaps I’ve spoken too soon. Aneesh Chaganty’s Searching, a techno-thriller starring John Cho as a beleaguered father frantically using his missing daughter’s internet history to track her down, weaves its winding mystery through a variety of elements commonly found on a computer screen, including FaceTime, web casting, old photos and family videos, etc. It’s the specific sort of film, like Unfriended, that presumes its cinematographic premise won’t irrevocably irritate its audience given our collective necessary or otherwise willful obligation for looking at computer and/or phone screens on a near-daily basis. Not only is it right to assume so, it’s fairer to assert that any possible preconceived notions of gimmick chasing were entirely misplaced.
In fact, there’s something quietly, almost humbly innovative about Searching’s storytelling techniques. Instead of flashbacks playing out as brick wall to forward progress, we get archived web streams introduced and facilitated specifically as a means of story building and character development, or perhaps we get old family photos and videos achieving the same ends. Instead of cuts from one scene to the next where characters describe events that previously took place, we get, for example, traffic camera footage that appears on the screen and plays over the top of the dialogue, though sometimes we can still see Cho’s David reacting to what he’s discovering within the frame. And instead of piecing together the logic of any given piece of scene geography, particularly a confined location, through a barrage of edits, we get hidden cameras strategically placed in a set piece so as to give the audience an immediate sense of scope and keep the appearances of events transpiring in real time. Not to mention, the Up-reminiscent opening scene consisting of life developments corresponding to technological advancements, from Windows XP to Facebook Messenger.
And yet, it’s all in service of a mystery film – a really damn engaging one, at that – that doesn’t tick any boxes outside of the ones its genre already required; another unabashed genre film, though this time with some new clothes. Same painting, different frame would accurately describe the particular circumstances here. But here’s the thing: all secondary, sometimes venue-based, facets to any given piece may not directly influence its or the artist’s intentions, but certainly have varying affects as to how we individually read and/or react to the piece in question. Naturally, we’d all react differently to examining Michelangelo’s David in person at the Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze versus seeing a photograph of it on a university lecture class PowerPoint presentation with slick shades and a ‘Thug Life’ caption photoshopped onto it, and different interpretations of Magritte’s Goldgonda would surely crop up if shown in seminars of different focus, like broad overviews of surrealist art or post-war art.
Admittedly, though Chaganty’s film does briefly highlight Millennial issues of identity and anonymity as it pertains to social media as well as a Gone Girl-esque criticism of the easier, faster spreading – thanks to the internet and outlets like Twitter– of baseless narratives hinged upon digestible stereotypes, it’s overarching statement about social media as a tool, rather another world, for self-identification is only about as deep as “it has its pros and cons,” intermittently, tacitly listing out each pro and con. That said, the dramatic core of many mystery fictions such as this one, Gone Girl included, is that the protagonists never quite knew the missing character like they thought they had, and this is where our new frame comes into play with a parental spin. There generally seems to be a tension parents feel in knowing their children while also letting them find who they are, but through the internet, social media and its plethora of communities comes a conjoined anxiety between ease of access and privacy, and even if spoken unconsciously, Searching screams it loud.
We’d be remiss, however, if we didn’t mention the performances that ensure its stability. Cho’s transformation from being ‘that guy’ in various studio comedy roles, most notably the Harold and Kumar franchise, to more intensely dramatic fare such as this and last year’s indie darling Columbus not only proves his range, but in this particular case demonstrates a tangible ability to navigate the pits of anxiety, whether it be existential or something more palpably immediate, like searching for a child. And though he arguably carries the picture forward, it’s Debra Messing, herself making a relatively against-type turn, as Detective Rosemary Vick who often steals the spotlight. It’s an overused sentiment to avoid deeper reflection regarding a performance, but she genuinely disappears into the role, seemingly and seamlessly gliding through authoritative control and even briefly harrying to regain or reestablish it, in a way playing an intriguing mirror opposite to Cho’s Kim in that regard.
But unlike the gripping performances from our two leads, you never get the sense that such an audacious approach to storytelling could work a second time. Everything about Searching feels like that ‘once in a blue moon’ lightning in a bottle magic that cannot, and shouldn’t be replicated, for any successive attempts would discover immense difficulty in finding new ways to keep the premise fresh and lively – especially since we’re likely years and years away from the next technological breakthrough that might give the qualitative measure of a potential sequel a fighting chance. Perhaps the hands that hold it are an encouraging sign in that regard. You don’t really get the impression that Sony are intentional gluttons for bad press. Or maybe I’ve spoken too soon once again.