Enough narrative movies have used the ‘computer desktop’ format for a sub-genre to spring up – with its own conventions, recurring themes and story stratagems. Searching│takes cues from Unfriended (with which it shares a producer, Timur Bekmambetov), The Den, Open Windows and others in presenting the viewer with what seems to be a collage of video clips, social media postings, Skype calls, google searches, maps, news items, references, hidden files and tagged information in order to unspool a mystery-suspense story. Family photos and homevideo fill in the backstory of decent guy David Kim (John Cho) and his talented musician daughter Margot (Michelle La), who have suffered the loss of wife and mother Pamela (Sara Sohn) and tried to carry on as best they can, putting up a good front but plainly wrecked behind their high-achieving activity. When Margot doesn’t come home after a study evening, David has to dig into her life and discover all sorts of things he didn’t know about her – that she’s quit her piano lessons but has been banking the cash he leaves her to pay for them, that none of her social media friends are terribly close to her, and that she seems to have bought fake ID in another name. Detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing) takes charge of the case, and keeps bombarding him with more shocking information – sending him off on his own investigations, which lead him to confront a sleazy teen who has stalked his daughter’s instagram (one of the funniest tiny moments has this keyboard rebel forced to cough up to an alibi for the night of the crime – he was at a Bieber concert) and turn on his own brother (Joseph Lee) when he discovers a suspicious text chain between them.
Written by Sev Ohanian and director Aneesh Chaganty, and very well played by Cho, this probes important contemporary issues of the alienation that hides inside ostensibly social online activity and the estrangement arising between different generations who make different uses of tech. It’s a paradox that the people who spend most time online are often accused of having a low attention span, and Searching│depends – to an even greater extent than Unfriended – on an audience being willing to scan the frame for clues that characters in the film miss on the first pass. Of course, simply watching a film like this or Unfriended in a cinema on a big screen gives the viewer an advantage which won’t be shared by the home viewing experience – though streaming will nudge reactions more appropriate to the medium. The BBC online kids’ mystery series Dixi has played a lot with possibilities opened up by this sort of storytelling, incoporating audience reactions and comments and embedding links to optional background material – this is a more conventional piece, forcing you to take the story at the filmmakers’ pace, but I assume someone will eventually (if they haven’t already) make a clue-ridden whodunit as an interactive, explorable web-page or wiki on the model of those 1930s whodunits which consisted of a novel and a box of clues (cigarette ends, ticket stubs, etc). Here, the affecting character drama segues into very cunningly-contrived, well-thought-through set of mysteries on the Russian Doll principle of one plot nestled inside the next to the point when many viewers will feel the need to watch it again to check off the clues and see if the film actually plays fair.
Many savvy audiences will catch the stray names and images carefully placed amid the storm of information – I caught this the same week as I saw The Endless, and the presence of distinctive-looking character actor Ric Sarabia from that movie (and a bunch of other recent film/TV projects) as a face in a news item is a definite trigger warning that he’ll pop up later in a key role. It’s too easy to label films like this as gimmicks because they use unconventional storytelling methods pegged to current tech/social trends – this is a superbly-crafted thriller/mystery, very thoughtfully written and acted, and eventually a satisfying suspense ride too.