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Non-Review Review: Searching…

Searching… is an interesting fusion. It blends the innovative narrative style of Unfriended with the more convention cinematic language of thrillers like Kiss the Girls.

This cocktail is at once welcome and overdue. Unfriended was one of those rare genuinely innovative pieces of mainstream cinema; in form, if not necessarily in function. Unfriended built from a premise that was both incredibly simple and also formally daring, telling a fairly standard supernatural teenage revenge story entirely through a computer desktop. As with Searching…, all of Unfriended unfolded within a computer screen.

Windows ’95 into the soul…

In hindsight, it is surprising that it has taken other genres so long to embrace that formal experiment. Cinema has a long history of eagerly coopting the language and experiments of horror for more prestigious and high-brow fare. Consider, for example, how quickly other genres coopted the “found footage” revolution of the early twenty-first century for action movies, thrillers, comedies, and even monster movies and superhero films. (Then again, that embrace of the “found footage” aesthetic may have caught on for reasons beyond the success of The Blair Witch Project.)

Searching… takes the basic formal conceit of Unfriended and applies it to a more conventional genre film. The result is an abduction thriller told exclusively through screens, through video streams, search histories, web cameras and screenshots. It’s a provocative premise, effectively turning the bigger screen into a smaller one and changing the rules of how the audience processes the imagery in front of them. However, Searching… clearly aspires to bridge the gap between screens big and small.

She needs to screen her fans better.

Naturally, reading a computer screen is a radically different concept than watching a movie, requiring more different form of engagement from the person behind the screen. In cinema, the audience is typically treated as passive, with the camera actively telling the audience where to look through framing, composition and movement. Cinema is one big image, even when multiple things are happening within a single frame.

In contrast, using a computer is a much more dynamic experience. Multiple windows are open at the same time, layered on top of one another. Multiple tabs can be opened at the same time, for the user to navigate to and from as the need arises. Programs that are running do not even need to occupy physical space on the screen; music can play from videos buried behind walls of text, little icons can try to catch the user’s attention, screens can be composited in whatever configuration the user desires. Naturally, there is a tension between the way these two screens work.

News media.

The most interesting aspect of Searching… is the way in which it tries to bridge the gap between Unfriended and a more conventional thriller. The entirety of the film unfolds across a variety of screens; the lead character’s desktop, his daughter’s laptop, even an iPhone camera. However, director Aneesh Chaganty repeatedly makes it clear that the audience is still watching a film. The narrative framework of the big screen is imposed upon the smaller screen.

Unfriended might be best described as an “experience” to be played full-screen on a laptop, rather than a “film” to be watched on a gigantic television screen. It blurred the boundaries between old entertainment and new entertainment in a manner very similar to Netflix’s sort-of-like-television-but-not-really-television output. In contrast, Chaganty is very insistent that Searching… is a piece of cinema. The film constantly and repeatedly reminds the audience of that fact through its storytelling.

Holding up to cursory examination.

Although the film opts to focus on small screens, it is not confined by them. Torin Borrowdale’s score constantly reminds audience members that they are watching a film, the soundtrack existing outside the context of the monitors playing on screen. (This is somewhat distracting in the opening sequences, but gets more manageable once the film has reminded the audience of how this works.) Similarly, editors Nicholas D. Johnson and Will Merrick splice together montages for an omniscient observer rather than a simple witness watching through a screen.

Indeed, this reflects the manner in which standard genre films embraced the concept of “found footage”, by stretching the limitations imposed upon the narrative format. Often, when watching a found footage film, it is fair to ask how the footage could possibly have been released and what the audience’s role is in the meta-drama. Searching… makes use of similar conceits, providing exposition through footage that is available to the public, but which invites the audience to ask who is watching; through which eye is the film being seen?

Candid webcamera.

This ties into the core of how Searching… develops upon the central conceit of Unfriended. Aneesh Chaganty never relinquishes control of the audience’s eye in the way that Leo Gabriadze did on Unfriended, holding firmly on to the audience’s gaze and navigating it through the mess of information that the internet and various social networks serve up. There is a sense in which Searching… represents a moderation of the ambitious experiment of Unfriended, an attempt to temper some of the more gonzo aspects of that film and meant conventional cinematic storytelling half way.

The result is a much more tempered and accessible film. Chaganty’s hand shows at several points as the camera zooms in or pans across the screen, and as time is compressed through cuts and montages. There is a concession here, a compromise between commitment to the form and the narrative rules of cinema. The audience member is not asked to process everything on screen, instead guided to what is important. It is an intriguing elaboration upon a novel premise, perhaps an attempt to create something more slightly conventional.

Did she just snap?

This attempt to apply a radical template to a more convent film is most obvious in the plot, which follows a concerned father desperately trying to find his missing daughter. He attempts to track her down by navigating the complex web of social networks that define modern life for the net-native generation. In doing so, this father discovers a window (or perhaps even Windows) into her soul. Searching… includes all the markers that a story like this needs, all the familiar milestones of a life lived on-line; Facebook, Twitter, Instagram.

There are some interesting ideas here, with Searching… touching lightly on some of the challenges of living in virtual spaces. In a canny move, the film seems more concerned about David Kim trying to navigate through this digital frontier than it does about his daughter’s (possible) misadventures. As the search for his daughter unfolds, David finds himself drawn down rabbit holes and dead ends, desperately trying to make some connection, to take the incredible amount of information that has been afforded him and to fashion it into a cohesive narrative.

“This isn’t what I meant when I asked about licensed software.”

The internet is a reliable narrative engine for this sort of pulpy high-stakes thriller, because it provides any number of ridiculous premises and probably leads. It allows the movie to dart off in various directions, to try and stitch a singular story together from a wealth of information that is contradictory and incomplete. The internet is schizoid, and there is a sense that the human brain is simply not equipped to handle the influx of data that it might provide.

Searching… certainly suggests that it is too much for David at certain points, who often seems like he might drown in ambiguous messages or dangling threads. This is rich ground, thematically and narratively. Thematically, it gets at the challenges of navigating the modern world where everything is online without any proper framework to assist in navigation. Narratively, it provides enough material that Searching… can bounce from one crazy idea to another without ever feeling too outlandish.

Staying on (desk)top of it all.

Anybody who has spent time online knows David is only scratching the surface of the insanity available on the internet. The plot  to Searching… is ridiculous and absurd, as it needs to be for a premise like this to work. It is to the credit of director Aneesh Chaganty and lead actor Jon Cho that the film holds together as well as it does for as long as it does. Even allowing for the infinite array of dead ends and dangling hooks that the internet can afford, the narrative strains at times to maintain momentum. It also struggles to offer a satisfying conclusion.

Searching… comes off the rails in its third act, when the various story elements begin to pay-off. There is a lot of exposition to stitch together the various of fragments that David has stumbled across on his cyberspace safari. It certainly isn’t convincing or satisfying. However, there is something charming in Searching…‘s commitment to its central premise. The film never holds back, even when it feels like it should.

That poor, lonely Windower.

Searching… delivers the sort of heightened pulp that one expects from these sorts of parent-child thrillers, amplified through the demands of social-media storytelling. It is absurd, but it’s also thrilling. Searching… always pushes forward, even when it doesn’t quite know where it’s going, never slowing down and never doubting itself. This leads to a number of infuriatingly bizarre plot developments, but the narrative is unspooling fast enough that it just about gets away with them. The internet provided us with Pizzagate, so the twists of Searching… seem almost quaint.

Searching… has an endearing energy to it, and never slows enough that its unspooling plot threads can catch up. Perhaps the best thing that can be said about Searching… is that there’s no buffering.

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