‘Searching’ a great story, not right for its gimmick

Searching does a wonderful job of turning computers into scary things. In moments like these, Kim appears to be visibly lost amongst the windows. Image courtesy Sony Pictures Releasing.

6/10 When I saw the first Unfriended, I thought it had the potential to advance film as an art from in a way that very few movies can. Four years later, Searching, which is also entirely composed of shots on various computer screens, comes careening into cinemas out of Sundance with some pedigree, an apparently serious take on the new gimmick.

Two years before Searching, David Kim (John Cho) lost his wife to cancer, and he and his daughter Margot (Michelle La) grew distant. One night, Margot leaves for her study group and never comes back, leaving her father with only three midnight missed calls and her forgotten laptop to work off of. Detective Rosemary Vick (Deborah Messing) believes Margot ran away, and Kim begins to take matters into his own hands.

Searching, like the Unfriended movies, eschews traditional camerawork for full-frame images of computer screens. But while the Unfriended movies are designed from the ground up to be shot this way, Searching is a much more traditional story that could easily have been shot in a traditional way. I think keeping the camera welded to computer screens was the wrong choice.

Tight focus on computer screens can lend a lot to a movie, and Searching benefits richly from it. David Kim is developed into a wonderfully “dad” like character with the way he types, his use of elipses and semicolons even though he’s typing in an instant messenger.

In one subtly brutal scene, Kim, who does not have a Facebook account, opens his daughter’s laptop and hacks into her social media. Clearly not knowing what to do but suspecting that a potential kidnapper lurked in her friends list, Kim meticulously downloads all of her friends’ profile pictures and all of their conversations. At the end of the sequence, Margot’s pristine desktop, which is one of the last pictures of her with her mother, is covered in downloads, marred by her father’s betrayal.

Kim’s entire character is based around his angry lack of computer savvy and willingness to violate his daughter’s boundaries. Searching has more twists than the average thriller, but an examination of this character would still be satisfying in a far simpler story. Cho does a wonderful job of balancing the character’s genuine love for Margot with his much more prevalent anger and fear of loss while also making him kind of stupid. It’s a far more nuanced role than the guy who was made famous by Harold & Kumar is known for.

But those are elements that you could still get with traditional direction, and Searching cheats so much on the computer screen gimmick that it becomes a distraction more than anything positive. It even incorporates traditional filmmaking elements into its long stare at the screen, where it can — the Unfriended movies keep the camera completely still on the screen the entire time, but Searching has cuts  and zooms and close-ups on text that you don’t even really need.

The film also jumps to other computer screens, and even cell phone screens, more and more often as it goes on. It’s a similar effect as to the end of Chronicle, where instead of finding a way to continue telling the story with the handheld camera they’d been using for the first 90 minutes, the ending is cobbled together from security camera and cell phone footage and it completely shatters the spell the film had been casting.

Creativity cannot exist without boundaries. That’s why I love the Unfriended movies so much — they establish boundaries that severely hinder their ability to tell a story, then operate unblinkingly within them for better or worse. Searching establishes the same boundaries, then steps outside of them every time they become inconvenient. Especially given that it’s got a wonderful story that doesn’t really benefit from its shooting style, what’s the point of that?

Leopold Knopp is a UNT graduate and managing editor of The Lewisville Texan Journal. Like Reel Entropy on Facebook, follow it on Twitter and Instagram and support it on Patreon. You can reach me at reelentropy@gmail.com.

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