Can’t fight it, there’s always going to be movie trends. I’d rather accept facts and appreciate quality when I find it. Like the found footage thing everyone hated a few years ago? I did not hate it. There were a few good movies amidst all the too-exactly framed mockumentary footage.
So when single screen movies - just like it sounds, the whole thing takes place on a computer screen - came along, my mind was more than open.
The trend started strong. Open Windows, with Elijah Wood and Sasha Grey and directed by Nacho Vigalondo (Timecrimes and the great Colossal), is pretty much a masterpiece. And the Unfriended movies are incredibly tense and scary thrillers that weaponizes the internet the way Christine turns the American sports car against us.
So when I saw that Searching was coming out, with that ominous poster of a black keyboard, blank except for the letters S, E, A, R, C, H, I, N, and G, ooh, man, chills.
The movie itself did not chill me. It’s got all the sign posts of the genre. The acting and basic mystery plot are good. But it misses a crucial mark that undid all the possible tension: in trying to appeal broadly, it doesn't take that trip to the ninth circle of hell that good thrillers should try try reach, as unbearable as it may seem.
The movie begins on a blank computer screen, as John Cho’s infant daughter’s first log-in is created. Then we take a trip through the family’s life in photographs and Facebook videos, watching her grow up on the internet. It’s a big-heart number, like the opening section of Up. And similar to Up, it ends with a death, in this case that of Cho’s wife. Then Searching fades into present day, and Cho is a widower, taking care of his now-teenage daughter. And then she goes missing.
I’m all for knowing where everyone is coming from. But do you want to tug at my heart strings, or do you want me on the edge of my seat? Searching wants us to feel big movie feelings more than it wants us feel what it’s like to try to find your missing daughter.
Like all single screen movies, the search (really tried not to use the word!) sprawls across as many apps as the filmmakers can think up. They just don’t think up very many. We’ve got Facebook, GChat, texts, TV news footage (do people really watch the full network affliate news online?), Tumblr (bro,I have a tumblr, and even I know nobody uses it anymore) a creepy video chat site, and a fakey funeral livecast.
That’s a pretty basic list, considering the director apparently used to work for Google and probably knows the unexpected ways to use the net for telling a story better than we do. But even the shallow bench of internet destinations would be forgivable, if they didn’t turn the lead, our hero, into a finger-waging Lame Dad. It’s not John Cho’s fault. He’s a noble, soft-spoken guy and a good father. But there's two separate scenes where he points his iPhone camera at a full garbage can to scold his missing kid for not taking it out. And he's kind of always That Dad for the rest of the movie.
Anyone who’s ever had to help their parents leave a Yelp review knows what’s at stake for an older person trying to master the young and constantly morphing internet. Having to save your daughter in a world you don’t understand? That’s a thrilling journey, and we could have taken it with Cho. I kept thinking of Hardcore, where strict Calvinist George C. Scott has to descend into the pornography underworld of L.A. to find his daughter. Cho isn’t challenged at anything close to that moral and philosophical level. A movie like Hardcore understands something that Searching does not: Cho isn’t just searching for his daughter. He's “searching” for the will to find her. He should go from Lame Dad to Daddy (and that’s a lot farther than Tumblr).
A lot of parents would probably enjoy Searching. That’s the problem. We should begin the movie rolling our eyes at Cho's well-meaning squareness, but end it thinking he's the coolest dad in town.