Written by Aneesh Chaganty and Sev Ohanian
Directed by Aneesh Chaganty
It’s San Francisco International Film Festival time again, and TarsTarkas.NET is back with more SFIFF reviews thanks to our powerful influence to buy tickets! First up is what was my favorite of the films I saw this year, a film that is visualized entirely using computer screens and surveillance videos. Searching utilizes its visual gimmick very well in telling the story of a father looking for his missing daughter. We go down a deep dive of building a story around a family that has a large digital footprint, learn about their hopes and loses (including the mother dying of cancer), and come to modern day with father David Kim (John Cho) and daughter Margot (Michelle La), both still a mess after the death of their wife/mother, Pamela (Sara Sohn).
Margot is in high school and off at a study group, which she tells her father via facetime will go on all night. He gently reminds her again that she forgot to take out the trash before calling it a night. He misses a few calls from her overnight, and awakens in the morning to be annoyed that she still hasn’t taken out the trash and thinks she left early for school. During work he starts getting worried that she isn’t responding to his texts, thinking she is mad at him, but soon realizes she left her school laptop at home and never arrived at school. Thus begins a frantic search to find out where she went, what happened to her, and what has been going on in her life while both of them have been too saddened by Pamela’s death to stay connected. Detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing) becomes David’s point of contact with the police, and the two start trying to construct a timeline of where Margot was and what she likes to do, with David realizing with increasing horror he doesn’t know anything about Margot’s life any more.
Things get pretty Law & Order pretty quickly, with David discovering things about his daughter’s secret activities and cryptic chat logs that could be wholly innocent, people exaggerating/lying, or something more sinister. There’s also the collection of students who were friends with Margot back when Pamela kept track of things in grade school, but have since moved on and only have vague ideas of what she is up to now. There is plenty of twists and turns, and the unique framework allows for the various reveals to play out in ways they couldn’t possibly happen during traditional storytelling. Writer/Director Aneeshe Chaganty and writer Sev Ohanian did an amazing job utilizing digital environments to make the story unfold in a way that seems a natural path of discovery and not forced to move from plot point to plot point.
I’m not going to waste a bunch of digital ink going on about how timely this is due to recent news events, because online privacy has been an ongoing issue for years and will be an ongoing issue for years to come. This is important stuff, people don’t realize just how much everything is connected and how easy it is to track things down for a determined individual. And I purposefully left that sentence vague enough to apply to whatever recent news happens because there will always be more recent news! Life is not just one issue that vanishes once it is no longer in the news, many problems are ongoing even if you aren’t noticing them. That’s even a theme of the movie, David didn’t notice the problems with his daughter and that caused bigger problems when something bad did happen.
Due to the large amount of digital environments, there are a lot of things going on in the background, including some vital clues and parallel narratives. The producer mentioned there was a whole story involving emails from a date that David went on right before Margot went missing. And let’s not forget that Margot’s school mascot is the Catfish! There is a lot of humor based on just how people act online and what you would be searching for and looking at while trying to desperately find any clue you possibly can. The film was also an editing challenge, as just framing the screens so we can see the action but also the important things that are happening in other windows while following the flow of the story turns out to be pretty tricky. The panel discussion with the director and producers was illuminating about the difficulties of bringing something that seems way more simple than it was to life. It all comes together amazingly, and Searching is a great little thriller that breaks beyond the screen confinements.
I’d also love to give a shout out to SFIFF for not hosting any screenings at the Alamo Drafthouse theater, as you may or may not know, the Alamo has been the source of controversy when it was found that founder Tim League secretly rehired a writer accused of sexual assault, covered up numerous sexual assault allegations involving sleazeball Harry Knowles, and probably does business with someone he knows is a rapist. Amazingly, all of this has been quickly swept aside by many cinema lovers, many who quickly tweet long threads about how horrible Harvey Weinstein is. I don’t sweep it aside, I don’t go to the Drafthouse any more, and I won’t be going to film festivals that have venues there until this is satisfactory resolved. Thankfully, SFIFF is a good festival, and I hope more festivals follow suit.
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