Searching chronicles a father (John Cho) as he attempts to find his missing daughter Margot (Michelle La). The film cultivates a brilliant labyrinth of twists and turns while also making its audience contemplate the role of technology and the internet in our lives.
The Median is the Message
I am a Marshall McLuhan evangelist. His most famous piece “The Median is the Message” is at the heart of Aneesh Chaganty’s Searching. McLuhan made the point that is doesn’t matter the content that is a being delivered on a platform. What matters is the delivery system itself does things to its receiver that impacts how they see and engage with the world. McLuhan’s seminal piece was focused on the median of television, whereas Chaganty’s Searching is more concerned with smart phones, social media, and the internet.
This idea is driven home by the way David (John Cho) leaps to conclusions several times in the movie. Technology leads David to assault a 17-year old boy, be remove from the investigation searching for his daughter, and even accuse his own brother of having sexual relations with his daughter. The point is hit home especially by the later. His proof of his brother deviance comes from strings of iMessages between Margot and David’s brother. The vagueness of the texts and the lack of audio and visual context allows David’s mind to leap to the deepest darkest place possible. The other interesting aspect of the scene is his need to seek out objective “proof.” He sets up surveillance cameras all over the apartment to capture the confrontation. This reinforces the idea the camera captures “objective truth” regardless of their perspective, lens, quality, or even how the footage gets edited later.
The technology and information available to David through the internet allows him rationalize significant behavior. As Margot’s digital footprint gets turned over by the police and David himself, we watch as he becomes consumed with the idea that this mystery has to be solvable. Every data point, traffic cam, and text message connects to a larger picture that will point to where his daughter is. The detective in charge of this missing persons case (played by Debra Messing of Will & Grace fame) similarly uses vague details of Margot’s digital footprint to paint a specific profile of her and ultimately prematurely close the case. Searching argues that access to these massive amounts of information allows us to leap to conclusions about people without really knowing them. It also plants the seed that everything is knowable.
But do 2018 Dads really FaceTime their Teenage Daughters?
Sticking with our McLuhan through line of this review, I am extremely aware the format that this movie is shot in absolutely contributes to my perception of the acting performances in this movie. By shooting through familiar programs like FaceTime and relying on desktop cams for the majority of the footage, Chaganty creates greater immersion into his world. John Cho scans more as “dad” and the set he is playing on feels more like “home” through the lens of a MacBook camera. These format choices are formal commentary on society themselves. That being said though the acting in this movie is incredibly strong and I wanted to take the time to rightly highlight it.
I am not a huge Will & Grace fan. By that I mean I have never seen an episode of Will and Grace. I am in fact so out of the loop that I spent this entire film captivated by the performance of Debra Messing only to discover that she was the Grace of Will & Grace. Messing’s performance is a tour-de-force. You watch as she layers her official role as a cop and her more personal presentation as a mother. She uses this more tender side of herself to earn David’s trust parent to parent. She then uses this rapport that they have built to manipulate and deceive David from the truth. By the end of this film the viewer is left wondering what is real, what was fake, and how one person could do such evil for the love of her child. I will be extremely upset if Messing doesn’t get a nomination for Best Supporting Actress from the Academy.
I am a HUYGGGE Harold and Kumar fan. By that I mean I have watch Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle several times. I am in fact so much a fan that I even went to White Castle once and choked down a slider, against all my better judgement, for my love of the film. Long story short David Cho has been on my radar for awhile. He was a big part of the Star Trek reboot. We watch his costar, Kal Penn, take a turn for the dramatic on House (which he left to go work for Obama, you know, THE PRESIDENT). I firmly believe that comedic acting is harder and actors that have great comedic timing have the toolset to become phenomenal dramatic actors. Cho adds to this theory. Searching is incredibly well written. The formal conception is brilliant. All aspects of the project fire on all cylinders. This project cannot work if David sucks. It just can’t. He is the lifeblood of the movie. Cho is onscreen 90% of the time. His voice makes up a huge percentage of the other 10%. Cho knocks it out of the park. Big League. He’s been kicking around for a while and been successful enough actor. Not since Jake Gyllenhaal in Nightcrawler have I seen a performer redefine what is possible within their range. To date Cho is the best performance of the year and I hope Searching open many more opportunities for him.
Didn’t You Mention Social Media?
I did indeed touch on social media at the top of this blog. Thanks for reminding me fictional editor that enjoys the gimmick of headings as production notes! Aneesh Chaganty’s Searching joins Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade (if you want to read more about that ditty go here) in its focus on social media and the youths.
To me the thing that is interesting about comparing Searching and Eighth Grade is their unique routes to similar conclusions. Eighth Grade takes an extremely personal and intimate story, and in its specificity, finds universal truths for the modern teen. Searching takes a common story ripped from the headlines (and covered to death in the 24-hour cable news cycle) and find impactful specificity in the generic. They both experiment with form in interesting ways. The subjects are both teenage girls who are lost and friendless. They both create or rely on internet personas to get through the day to day that are not real representations of who they are. Eighth Grade does an incredible job of keeping the commentary and focus of the social media local. Searching takes a small-town missing persons case and makes it global.
In 2018 it really shouldn’t be that revolutionary to see Reddit thread on the big screen considering how many people consume their day on that site, but it is. Juxtaposed against the foreground of this one man as he goes through a personal crisis is the Everything that is internet culture. We see conspiracy theories, talk radio rants, local news coverage, and thoughts and prayers. Never forget about the thoughts and prayers! Processing and trying to understand all the information coming at you in the background is confusing and overwhelming. What are the filmmakers trying to say about all of this? Is it good? Is it bad? There is just too much to figure it out at the viewer is really more consumed with finding Margo than all of this other stuff. And that is the point. All of this other stuff is just noise. It’s not contributing to the tasks at hand. By taking us to a high stakes situation of kidnapping, missing persons, and MURDER we see how unnecessary all this other stuff really is. It just gets in the way. Every time we think it’s helping or solving the mystery it doesn’t. It’s just a distraction. David Kim’s crisis is ours of this moment. We are going through a lot right now as a society, we are turning to technology to solve it, and it’s just creating more noise.
Searching is an absolutely-must-see-drop-what-you-are-doing-and-go-see-it-right-now kind of movie. Its presentation is revolutionary to the medium of filmmaking and will make it stand the test of time on that alone. It is equally well written and acted. Most importantly it has a strong desire to engage with the moment we are in right now and start a conversation with its audience about the role of technology and social media within our society. Stuff like this doesn’t come around a lot. goGoGO!