Searching at EIFF: an absorbing screencap-flick
Found-footage movies are a godsend for studios. Audiences love them (I recently attended a public test screening for an awful piece of such work – which shall not, for legal reasons, be named – where almost all in attendance voiced their ongoing support for the gimmick); many seem to (weirdly) find them scary; and they make a shit-ton of money. And most importantly, they cost almost nothing to make. But what if there was a way to go even cheaper? Enter the screencap-flick: a film that takes place almost entirely on a laptop screen, abandoning the need for any filmmaking equipment that almost everyone doesn’t already have.
Unfriended was an interesting, albeit disappointing, horror-genre experiment with this conceit, but Searching, the debut feature of Aneesh Chaganty (produced by Timur Bekmambetov), aims to translate this premise to the frantic search for a missing child.
I’m pleased to report that the endeavour is mostly successful. John Cho stars as David, a widowed father who finds himself in every parent’s worst nightmare: his daughter (Michelle La) has gone missing. Together with detective Vick (Debra Messing), he uses the family computer(s) to unravel the mystery behind the disappearance – searching his daughters files and social media accounts to question potential leads and build a picture of what happened on the fateful night. Along the way, David begins to discover that there are things he didn’t know about his family and acquaintances, all of which drag him deeper into a dark web (see what I did there) that he struggles to escape from.
Chaganty does an excellent job of taking something cold and inhuman (a computer display) and transforming it into an affecting emotional rollercoaster. The way in which the story unspools is genius – utilising completely believable methods to reveal answers which feel sensible until the final act. For a younger audience, especially, the film feels relatable – genuine and naturalistic. But it also appeals to a niggling concern – our ongoing obsession with technology. To an extent, David’s family computer contains a copy of his daughter: her upbringing and memories, her friends, her activities, her obsessions. Searching suggest fragments of a life lived digitally. Chaganty casually depicts David breaking his way into his daughter’s supposedly private online accounts (in realistic fashion, I may add), highlighting the difficult reality that we’re never truly safe, or alone, on the internet. As if that wasn’t enough, the movie is sprinkled with perfect little moments of humour that don’t feel tonally at odds with the otherwise serious action.
Director of Photography Juan Sebastian Baron utilises the familiar environment of a computer desktop to fantastic effect; crafting images and scenes that sometimes invoke laughs (an app and document cluttered homepage, for instance, works as an effective sight-gag); or evoke genuine terror and menace. One particular sequence, set to pulsating jellyfish-like standby images on a sleeping computer, made my hair stand on end.
But Searching has its problems too. It does feel that it’s a film created solely to fit the gimmick. Take away the laptop-conceit and what you’re left with is a pretty standard, beige missing-person thriller populated by generic plot-beats. Similarly, some of the twists and turns it takes are unbelievable and excessive – by the third or fourth surprising change of direction, I was wondering whether M. Night Shyamalan had had a hand in the script. Some of the emotional heart-string-pulling feels exploitative and sensationalist from the perspective of the audience. In its later stages, the film begins to loosen its grasp on the screencap confines, breaking out into cinematic news footage of the climactic events – something that, sure, can be watched on a computer screen, but feels a lot like cheating the system nonetheless. Chaganty never really instils a sense of tension or immediacy to the action and, in its bloated middle stretch, Searching feels poorly paced and unnecessary. As an 101 minute film, perhaps cutting an extra 10 minutes would have made a huge difference.
Searching lives and dies by its experimental conceit. As an (almost) unique experiment, it manages to wring genuine emotion and a believable storyline out of an hour and a half of screen-captured images. Thematically, it raises interesting questions about our usage of technology and the dissemination of personal information, creating something visually exciting and absorbing within an environment that most of us see every day.