Between this being the first Hollywood thriller to feature an Asian actor in the leading role and “Crazy Rich Asians” blazing its own trails and records, August was a good month for Asian-Americans.
Told from the perspective of computers, cameras and smartphones, “Searching” follows a father who searches (eh!) for his missing teenage daughter. John Cho stars as the father, Michelle La plays his daughter and Debra Messing portrays the detective assigned to the case; Aneesh Chaganty directs.
The found-footage, as-seen-through-screens technique is nothing new — even “Modern Family” had an entire episode in the format — and as this year’s “Unfriended” (and unseen) sequel indicated audiences may be growing tired of the gimmick. “Searching” doesn’t really do anything new with the style, aside from a few entertaining throwbacks to old Facebook and YouTube layouts, but it does use the “trapped behind a screen” format to thrilling results, including a pulse-pounding climax.
Cho is best known for his comedic roles in the likes of “American Pie” and “Harold and Kumar,” but in the past few years has been doing a lot more quiet dramatic work in indie films, like “Columbus.” Here he plays a distraught father still coping with the death of his wife, and the fact he is often constricted to a square on a screen must do a lot of acting with facial expressions instead of being able to move around a room is a testament to his abilities. We feel his angst and worry as well as his mounting frustration, and a little bit of our preconceived notions of him as an actor may even help us empathize with him more. Messing, also best known for her comedy on “Will & Grace,” plays the detective assigned to the case and a pretty seamless transition into the dramatic world.
Sometimes the “screen view” can feel constricting, but that’s the point; there is no reaching out or yelling to the characters when we as an audience notice something. One scene in particular led to my friend to anxiously say “pick up the phone!” when a character was ignoring incoming texts. The final 15 minutes are probably the most thrilling of the whole film, and while it could have come off as gimmicky and obligatory in the hands of some filmmakers, Chaganty is able to make things work (mostly).
As a director, Chaganty drops little subtle hints throughout the film in newsreels and Twitter trending topics to help audiences solve the puzzle, you just need to be quick enough to catch them and I think that will lend itself to repeat viewings.
“Searching” offers a little bit of social commentary as far as the hypocrisy of our online and offline personas, as well as the relationships between parents and their children, but more than not is just an entertaining thriller. It is one of 2018’s better films and probably one of Cho’s best performances, and I hope it finds the audience it deserves.
Critic’s grade: A-.