A Film a Week - Searching

It is no news to state that the current population in the western world spends half of the wake time in front of the computer screen. In average, at least. The differences between the work time and the free time are not significant either. Computers, laptops and smartphones have become an integral part of our lives that life without them is hardly imaginable for the generations who grew in the post-analogue time. And that is the reason the Russian-American producer-director Timur Bekmambetov has developed a technique for the film portrayal of our digital lives. Or he just thinks it is a cool thing to say in the interviews.

Last year he had all the reasons to do the interviews on the topic of digital footprint, since he has produced three films that have plots unfolding completely on a variety of screens. Unfriended: Dark Web is a sequel of horror film made four years before intended for a wide release. Profile (that he also directed) premiered in Berlinale’s Panorama section to good critical reception (non-festival release is pending) stating that this political thriller serves as a solid bridge between social relevance and genre tension while being technically innovative and consistent.

But the topic is Searching, a film produced by Bekambetov, but directed by the first-timer Aneesh Chaganty whose filmmaking background is sourced in web advertising of sorts. It premiered at Sundance and was widely released in the second half of the year after a long festival tour. In the terms of genre, it could be defined as a more or less standard issue missing person thriller, but the principal achievement here is that Searching actually works in both worlds, cinematic and the real one.

There is a certain elegance in the prologue montage of a several years of a Korean-American family activities, including the daughter Margot (played by several actresses until settling with Michelle La once the character reaches the late teens) crossing her school and life milestones while the mother Pam (Sara Sohn) battles with lymphoma, ending with Pam’s death, leaving Margot and the father David (John Cho) grieving. Needless to say, all the activities portrayed in the film are digital, like taking and uploading the photos and videos, searching the web, dealing with the e-mail, even using the computer calendar.

The rest of the plot is executed in the same manner, simulating the even more complicated web of different social media, FaceTime calls, news channels and whatnot on the World Wide Web. After some regular banter (for a teenage daughter and her middle-aged father, that is), Margot goes missing leaving David with only one option: to call the police. Detective Vick (Debra Messing) is assigned and she lets the father contribute to the investigation by combing all the digital life of his daughter he knew almost nothing about. And so it goes for a string of clues, red herrings, dead ends and plot twists to keep the viewer interested enough to watch a mystery thriller consisting of a series of screenshots, CCTV images, news clips, video calls and other stuff we can see on the computer.

The actors also contribute to the story quite well, as John Cho is likeable enough to be compelling and sympathetic as a father who wants to know what happened to his daughter and Debra Messing channels the grittiness of a veteran police detective, while there is a plenty of episodic characters played in discreet fashion by less famous actors. The context is precious here, since the communication nowadays is as instant as it gets, but it does not necessarily bring people together. Also, there is a lot of truth in the notion that teenagers are shutting their parents out of their lives and the digital platforms actually make that pretty easy to do.

Consistency in style also demands a certain technical level so the re-creation of amateur-looking video forms is compelling and on that level everything seems pretty good. But the problem is, however, the fact that in the terms of filmmaking it is pretty much useless. Firstly, the story could be told better with a several regular live-action shots that were not dragged through the filters of CCTV or YouTube video. And secondly, even the YouTubers and other video bloggers try to make their recordings looking less amateurish and YouTube-ish, for which they nowadays have a bunch of technology on the disposal. But having in mind that the competition in this niche of filmmaking consists of self-serving crap like Unfriended and Open Windows, Searching looks good by only being a decent story told in a decent manner and currently occupies the top of the ladder.

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