‘Searching:’ A Mixed-Media Mystery
How Aneesh Chaganty's directorial debut shows the growth of family and technology simultaneously.
Searching, the directorial debut from Aneesh Chaganty, is a film with multiple layers. It is quite the accomplishment of a film that focuses on being so self-contained is able to be peeled back like an onion, as we are introduced to new methods of storytelling and cinematic techniques. This is not the first film that uses the mixed-media approach, with films like Unfriended (2014) coming before. However, I feel comfortable saying that Chaganty’s is the first film that utilizes the medium in a way that benefits both the plot and furthers the mystery. The film touches on issues regarding family structure, grief, the advancement of technology, and the disconnect between generations concerning the new age of social media.
Caught in the Digital Web
Searching follows a father’s pursuit of his missing daughter, and is completely told through the observation of a computer screen. It is here that we see the expansive techniques of the filmmaker’s creativity in keeping the viewer’s interest in a limited storytelling approach. We see the father, David Kim played by John Cho, use familiar devices and applications in order to act as a cybersleuth that is hell-bent on finding his daughter. Through these devices, we see his family grow and progress into new stages of life as the technology advances with them. The film begins as his wife and mother of Margot, Michelle La, is taken from the family by cancer and leaves John Cho to take care of the family. We get a clear picture of the father’s relationship with the daughter as we are given an extremely personal look into the conversations had. Texts are seen as they are formed between the two, and the conversations play much like you would expect—long messages from John Cho are followed by one word responses and/or zero answers, which are followed by poorly timed FaceTimes and more. It is clear that the multimedia approach is not just a gimmick—long pauses between messages, rewriting, and second guessing are all used as a means to build tension, as well as give a deeper look into the characters we are observing.
From here, the mystery begins and Margot disappears, leaving David to follow the digital trail she left behind. This is where the film becomes extremely self-aware and furthers its exploration into its characters. David is trying to avoid being the controlling parent, but still worries about his daughter. We see the battle internally of a parent not wanting to overstep his boundaries, but still worrying about his family. Once it’s clear that something is wrong, all bets are off, and we see David use familiar applications and sites to further unravel the events that transpire. A missing persons detective, played by Debra Messing, is brought into the case, and the plot moves from there as the two try to locate Margot. The viewer is put into the shoes of David Kim and his pursuit of information. He gets into his daughter’s Facebook, Instagram, Tumblr, and other apps based in reality, which gives the film an extremely authentic and familiar feel.
It is clear that the filmmakers are very socially aware and knowledgeable about the Internet, as we do not just see the websites, but the personalities behind them. From using Reddit and observing your typical Internet detective that jumps to conclusions, to seeing the false sincerity of Facebook friends and empty “thoughts and prayers,” we get a taste of the society that social media has created. This is where the film becomes self-reflective of society. Multiple of Margot’s classmates are questioned by the father, and most of them don’t truly view themselves as friends with her, painting her as an outcast. Yet, when the news breaks that Margot is missing, the hashtag #FindMargot quickly takes off. Those same students that distanced themselves from her are now seen garnering sympathy for the event, claiming how close they were to Margot. This false sympathy is something quite common on social media today, and it was infuriating to see it unravel in real time. This, however, is what makes the film so relatable—we know every character because we have seen someone like them on our own social media platforms. The lack of personability behind the abundance of information is something that perplexes David. He sees all of this information surrounding him about his daughter, but no one truly knew her; not even him.
This disconnect between online faces is also apparent in how David Kim treats technology, as opposed to his daughter. This divide between generations in our culture is spearheaded by social media and technology. We hear and see David dumbfounded, while trying to navigate the sites his daughter frequently uses. Apps like Venmo come into play, giving insight into David’s shock that money can be moved so frequently. Streaming and livecasting apps reveal to David that people put their personal lives front and center. When David Kim’s life is put into the public eye, the results are mixed. There are multiple reactions, including those who start the trend #daddidit and #fatheroftheyear. This segment shows how a news story has multiple perspectives, and people’s insensitivity is masked by a screen. In comparison to an era of technology, David comes to see how society has essentially been acting as a time capsule of a person’s life, and sometimes the personas we choose to portray online aren’t necessarily who we are in reality. Searching is a very interesting observation into a family that has grown up around this modern technology, and how that can affect personal relationships.
A New Brand of Storytelling
Searching marks the beginning of a new brand of mystery. Rather than use a plot device to further the events, we essentially observe through the plot. We see everything from the perspective of David Kim, and every conclusion he jumps to, we follow along with him. Every character he meets digitally, we meet them under the same circumstance, and because of this, the viewer really does feel like they are solving the mystery as it unfolds. It is truly a unique experience to get a personal look into a family through home movies, texts and other private moments—we become a member of the family. This personability only furthers when the unthinkable happens, and the viewer can feel the pain extruding from the father.
I credit Aneesh Chaganty for the attention to detail in Searching. Every single file and contact information displayed on the computer screen is thoroughly placed as a means of making the world feel inhabited. The computer feels like a gateway into the character’s personal lives, and it is something that is unmatched in cinema. While I don’t know how a film can do this mixed-media style better than Searching, I am excited to see how a filmmaker will try because Chaganty sets the bar high. The film was never dull or slow, and the pacing is perfect, which is something that I did not expect from a film that takes place 100% on a simulated screen. The characters are artistically constructed, and their personalities only further the perplexity of the plot. Many of the characters are Asian, and this is not just a casting choice. The father is involved in his daughter’s academics, but somehow distant from her personal life. Margot is frequently involved in piano lessons and AP classes, but yearns for a social life, as well as misses her mother who added balance to her busy life. Every decision in the film is chosen as a means to advance and add layers to the plot. This attention to detail makes the film a truly great thriller, and proves that this mixed-media approach is far from a gimmick. Searching is the benchmark for those that want to redefine the modern mystery, and gives us a time capsule of the past ten years, as our families have grown hand in hand with advancing technology.
– Jacob Kline