Review: Searching

Last Updated on July 30, 2021

SEARCHING was originally reviewed at the Fantasia Film Festival. 

PLOT: A desperate father (John Cho) tries to solve the mystery of his daughter’s disappearance by exploring her digital footprint.

REVIEW: SEARCHING played the Fantasia Film Festival as part of an intriguing sidebar they’ve featured this year highlighting producer Timur Bekmambetov’s innovative “screen life” technique. Basically, this is a series that take place wholly on computer screens, a method he began to toy with on UNFRIENDED, and which he’s gone full-throttle into using this year with UNFRIENDED: DARK WEB, his own PROFILE, and now SEARCHING.

The winner of the Alfred P. Sloan screenwriting award at Sundance, as well as the winner of the NEXT Audience award (where it was screened under the original title SEARCH), SEARCHING wound-up being a pricey acquisition during what was an otherwise lean year for that kind of thing. I missed it during my Sundance coverage, but having now seen it for myself with a packed Fantasia audience, I can see why Sony acquired it for their Screen Gems label and is giving it a wide commercial release later this summer. This thing had the audience riveted from the first frame to the last, despite being a significantly tamer type of genre film than the Fantasia crowd is used to.

To be sure, SEARCHING has an edge over some of Bekmambetov’s other screen life films, in that it has a great writer-director in Aneesh Chaganty, who made some pioneering Google Glass videos that serve the film well, as well as two dynamic leads in John Cho and Debra Messing. Neither of them typically turn up in thrillers, which gives SEARCHING a high-gloss, classy vibe that should help this appeal to non-genre fans.

Like other movies of this ilk, it’s a slow burn. Chaganty takes his time, allowing us ample opportunity to get to know the Kim family, who are reeling from a recent death. While a loving dad, Cho’s David is unable to talk about the recent passing of his wife without breaking down, while his formerly bubbly daughter, Margot (Michelle La) has grown sullen. Cue two missed overnight calls and a missed FaceTime, which suggests all might not be well with Margot, who never comes home from a late night study session.

Chaganty expertly conveys David’s mounting anxiety, at first desperate to cling to any reasonable explanation, but then all too aware of the fact that his daughter is missing and may never be found. He finds a shoulder to cry on in a compassionate, if exasperated detective (Messing), who’s on the case. Not able to leave it alone, he plays detective and uncovers the secrets of Margot’s online life, giving Chaganty an opportunity to explore a common anxiety about social media – that the person we’re the closest to may essentially be a stranger – especially with so many people spending more and more time online.

All that said, SEARCHING is unique in that it doesn’t use scare tactics or try to keep people off social media. Yes, Margot uses it to keep things from her dad, but David is also able to use it as a way of potentially rescuing his girl, and Cho keeps it grounded with a nuanced performance that allows us to occasionally get exasperated about David’s insecurities and poorly thought-out actions – such as beating up a teenaged boy who says nasty things about his daughter on Facebook.

Running a taut ninety minutes, Chaganty makes sure SEARCHING never runs out of steam, even if it falls prey to a few of screen life’s limitations, such as the liberties that have to be taken in order to capture video streams of things that happen while David’s away from his computer. The score can also be a bit melodramatic at times, especially towards the beginning, although it’s used sparingly as the film goes on.

Without a doubt, SEARCHING is the most effective use yet of the screen life technique, although I’d like to see it may be used outside of the thriller genre. Hopefully, people give this one a shot once Screen Gems puts it out in theaters, as it’s quite captivating, as well as serving as a good example of how dynamic a leading man John Cho can be when given the chance.




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About the Author

Chris Bumbray began his career with JoBlo as the resident film critic (and James Bond expert) way back in 2007, and he has stuck around ever since, being named editor-in-chief in 2021. A voting member of the CCA and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic, you can also catch Chris discussing pop culture regularly on CTV News Channel.