Film Review: “Searching” Finds Profundity in Its Own Chaos

Film poster: “Searching”

Searching (Aneesh Chaganty, 2018) 2½ out of 4 stars. 

A muddle in many ways, director Aneesh Chaganty’s Searching nevertheless rises enough above its own frequent missteps to be quite profound in parts, especially in its examination of the role of social media, and screens, in our modern lives. Much like Pixar’s 2009 Up, the film opens with an emotionally devastating montage of the passage of time, and of lives, setting up an expectation of poignancy not always matched by what follows. For, despite its narrative inventiveness – only ever showing us characters through the window of their electronic devices – Searching can never quite escape dramatic conventions that are less than the sum of its fabulous aesthetic parts.

John Cho (Gemini) stars as David Kim, father to the teenage Margot (virtual newcomer Michelle La), who goes missing one night and is initially thought (by the police) to be a runaway. Not content with the way the investigation, led by Detective Vick – played by Debra Messing (Grace on NBC’s Will & Grace) – is going, Kim takes matters into his own hands, with mixed results. Before long, what started as a missing-persons case turns into a presumed homicide, though Kim refuses to accept that possibility. Hoping for the best, he soldiers on, the window of opportunity closing more and more.

If that sounds gripping, it is, up to a point. Unfortunately, while the mystery of the missing daughter is compelling, and Cho does a great job as a distressed parent, much of the story feels too contrived to do justice to the overall conflict, often straining the screen-only conceit of the plot. Messing, usually an engaging performer, is reduced to a one-note character, limited in her actions and emotional range. So, while there’s adequate material here to hold one’s interest, we long, throughout, for the promise of the brilliant opening.

John Cho in SEARCHING ©Screen Gems

Much has been made of the wonders of the all-Asian cast of Crazy Rich Asians and its impact on representation, and I am all for that. Unfortunately, that film’s supercharged fetishization of wealth took away, for me, from some of its positive aspects. I find the more normal, everyday reality portrayed by Cho and and La in Searching to be a greater good, script flaws and all. So no, it’s not perfect, but I’ll take what works.

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About chrisreedfilm

Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is lead film critic at hammertonail.com, an online magazine devoted to independent cinema; a regular film critic here at filmfestivaltoday.com; the host of Dragon Digital Media’s award-winning "Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed"; a film commentator for the "Roughly Speaking” podcast with Dan Rodricks at "The Baltimore Sun"; and the author of "Film Editing: Theory and Practice." In addition, he is one of three co-creators, along with Summre Garber of Slamdance and Bart Weiss of Dallas VideoFest, of "The Fog of Truth" (fogoftruth.com) – available on iTunes, SoundCloud and Stitcher – a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.
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