Director: Aneesh Chaganty
Writers: Aneesh Chaganty, Sev Ohanian
Stars: John Cho, Debra Messing, Joseph Lee
I don’t think we’ve got a name for this genre of movie yet. The only other film I’ve seen of this type was the excellent and under-rated Unfriended (2014), which took place entirely via a series of text messages and Skype chats. Searching takes that premise and expands on it by including Facetime calls, news articles, TV clips, Go-Pro footage and spy-cam footage. So what do we call these films? They’re not found footage, because no one loses or finds this footage, so what are they? Well, if no one’s coined a term yet, I’d like to suggest it’s a ‘real-time media’ movie.
This film goes straight for the emotional jugular as soon as it begins, giving a heart-breaking backstory for our main characters. A quick look around my cinema confirmed that they were nearly all crying within the first five minutes, so be warned! This is achieved using a rapid succession of short clips of phone video and photographs, and the fact that the director got me (and everyone else) emotionally invested in this family so early on reassured me that I was in safe hands for this ride.
If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ll know the basic setup – David Kim has a close relationship with his daughter, Margot; not only does she live with him while attending college, but he seems to text or Facetime her at least several times a day, so when he can’t get hold of her for a few hours, he starts to worry. When she doesn’t come home that night, he decides it’s time to get the police involved.
And so as Detective Vick (Debra Messing) starts investigating the girl’s disappearance, it becomes clear that David didn’t know his daughter as well as he thought. She seems to have been living a secret life he knew nothing about, and like most kids her age, the majority of that life seems to have been lived on her phone or laptop.
The oldest gripe about found footage films is: ‘why do they keep filming?’ When some monster or crazed killer is chasing the hero, they still manage to keep hold of the camera and keep recording. It’s always been a problem with the found footage genre, and one that some film-makers have found clever ways of dealing with while others have gone to stupid lengths to explain. But this real-time media (is that catching on yet?) film doesn’t have to deal with that problem, since the only clips we get are when someone is on a Skype chat, or a Facetime call, etc. so they always have a reason for making that call.
This is an expertly woven tale told via some great editing. The director never seems confined by the limitations of what we’re allowed to see, but uses it in new and interesting ways. For instance, the shakiness and patchy lighting of a late-night Facetime call when someone is rushing to follow a lead gives the scene a terrific sense of urgency and energy.
I’m always careful to not include spoilers in my reviews, especially in a movie like this, but let me very carefully say this. I spotted two huge clues during this film, but they’re so cleverly planted, it’s only at the end of the movie, when you’re being told what’s happened, that you’ll remember them and realise why they were there. I know that’s cryptic, but believe me, you’d hate me if I spoiled it for you, and you’ll love it when you see them yourselves.
The film is densely packed with information, so even though I spotted those two clues on a first viewing, I suspect there are probably many more, and no doubt some YouTuber will make a video one day and point them all out.
This is a tense and engaging mystery thriller that embraces the limitations of its genre (what are we calling it, again?) to maximum effect. John Cho is completely believable as the distraught dad and Messing excels in a dramatic role after all those Will & Grace years. There are other characters in the movie, but for the most part this is a digital-age two-hander with those two sharing information to progress the plot.
It’s original, intelligent, emotional, and completely relatable to anyone whoever looked at the clock and wondered why their loved one was late.