“Searching” is a new movie about a missing person and the resulting search, and it portrays it in a unique way. Only a few other movies have used the idea that a window into the modern world can be done with various screens. That is, computer screens, laptop screens, iPhone screens, security monitor screens, TV screens, etc. — you get the idea. The movie “Unfriended” does a similar thing, but only with computer screens. With “Searching”, the idea is opened up a little more, and the resulting movie draws you into the mystery. By examining social media and other online posts and Internet trails, the mystery deepens and is becomes a compelling look into current life online – and how the surface image can hide much different truths.
David Kim (John Cho) is introduced as a happily married man. With his wife Pam (Sara Sohn) they have a little girl. Margot is first a small baby, and then young girl and then a high school teenager. All of this unfolds with fifteen-year old technology, think Windows XP, AOL Mail and Messenger and the like. But the happy family has a breakdown when Pam develops cancer, and it relapses, and it then returns with fatal results. This is all done in the first few minutes of the movie, and it outlines the personal tragic story of this family. In some ways it is emotionally similar to the beginning of the movie “Up”, with a twist on the way that the audience learns the various details of the family story.
With the wife and mother gone, both David and Margot (Michelle La) have been dealing with the loss in very different ways. David becomes very busy with work, and every time he talks with Margot it is a reminder of his late wife. So, he tends to communicate more and more via technology, with iPhone calls, and FaceTime and instant messages. Margot is having a rough time with the death of her mother, but she knows that her Dad is feeling very fragile right now. She tries not to bother him about little things. So she does not tell him everything. David has a brother named Peter (Joseph Lee) who is much closer to Margot than David knows.
Then one night, David insists that Margot do some chores at the house when she gets home from a study group. She calls and tells him she will be home much later than usual. David sleeps, and as he does there are two phone calls from Margot, plus a FaceTime request, deep in the middle of the night. He misses them and does not know that she never came home. It does not register that she did not come home until David gets back from work the next evening. He sees that Margot did not take out the trash when she got home. But she also did not take her laptop. Why would she go to a school study group without her laptop? He also realizes that he does not know any of the people that Margot would know.
He gets into the old laptop and finds Pam’s notes and records and contact lists. He makes many phone calls to find out there was a ‘ditch day’ and camping up in the mountains. He is sure that Margot will call when she gets back from camping. Until he finds out that Margot did not go with that group. He calls 911 to report Margot as missing. Detective Vick (Debra Messing) shows up and tells him that she is assigned to case and not to worry. They will go over all the details that David has found and contact many of the people that he feels might know Margot’s whereabouts. David searches further and finds an online personal streaming site that Margot had used to post quite a few videos. Margot has also been taking money meant for piano lessons and putting into a private PayPal account. Until she withdrew $2,500 a few days before she disappeared.
David is going crazy in his mind, with all the possible thoughts of what might have happened. There are some online posts that allude to Margot and her online activities. David finds someone who has been posting to Margot about her online videos, but the person appears to be miles away in another state. But could someone be ‘catfishing’, making a fake fictitious online presence to pretend to be somebody else? There are more clues, and David takes off to a nearby lake, where a car is found underwater. It belongs to Margot, but she is not in the car. What has happened? Could the person involved in the disappearance be somebody very close to Margot? Could it be a random stranger, recently released from parole? How can David be sure what is the truth, when everything online can be changed and adapted and modified?
“Searching” does take a very specific approach to the technology that has become an everyday part of our life. It uses that tech to both tantalize and torture the main character by showing him various version of what might be the truth. John Cho is superb as the grieving husband who cannot stand another loss in his life and is determined to figure out the puzzle. The clues and red herrings are everywhere, and the use of modern social media tools to explain the recent past show the real limitations of those online systems.
The movie goes about displaying the entire story as if it were unfolding on the devices that we use every day. This brings a closed-in, claustrophobic feel to the overall movie, but also gives it a larger sense of urgency. David is not the only one who is feverishly finding and mentally processing the clues. So is the audience.