The problem with high-concept movies is that it can be difficult to lose yourself in them. Both filmmakers and audiences have generally agreed on a visual shorthand in film—a common language of cuts, camera angles and exposition that, when applied correctly, can become invisible, letting the movie take over. It’s like how your brain filters out the sound of the ocean after your third day at the beach. The downside of all these conventions, though, is that unconventionally structured films—regardless of how well they’re executed—can seem too self-aware for their own good.
Searching, a mystery that takes place predominantly on a series of computer desktops, should fall into this trap, but it doesn’t. It’s one of the most engrossing films I’ve seen this year.
One important element of Searching’s success is that it’s not confined to a single desktop. The story circles around a family of three: David (the magnificent John Cho), his wife Pamela (Sara Sohn), and their daughter Margot (played, at various points, by Michelle La, Kya Dawn Lau, Megan Liu, and Alex Jayne Go). Searching’s viewpoint shifts between these characters’ various devices and user accounts, each of which offer clues to aspects of their personalities. Add to that a very effective use of zoom and framing, and the POV never feels static or constraining unless it needs to.
But what makes Searching more than a gimmick is how well it captures the limited but instantly recognizable emotional language of computer use: the typed but unsent message, the search query that’s loaded with dread, the shortened email subject line that belies bad news. All of these are effectively deployed in service of a fairly conventional missing-person story, enabling the film’s limited field of view to capture the feelings of familial isolation, technological confusion, and desire for connection. Add the fact that at no point does anyone pretend to use Bing, and you have an immersive experience—one that thrives in its self-imposed limitations.