When was the last time you saw a whodunit in the theater that kept you guessing? In recent years, mystery and thriller lovers have grown used to getting our fix from streaming services, with their seemingly bottomless supply of procedurals and true crime docs. The occasional best-seller adaptation or star vehicle aside, this genre doesn't seem to play well in theaters anymore.
That's why it's so heartening to see a film like Searching, which comes to us through the indie pipeline, fresh from an audience award at the Sundance Film Festival. While not flawless, director and cowriter Aneesh Chaganty's debut feature is a bona-fide mystery that keeps viewers absorbed, making clever use of a format gimmick without leaning too hard on it.
That gimmick is a new spin on found footage, first seen in horror movies like The Den and Unfriended: All the action takes place on the screens of electronic devices. Just a few years ago, the screen-bound format might have been static or stifling. But the ubiquity of online video changed that, and it's a perfect fit for the deceptively familiar plot that Chaganty and cowriter Sev Ohanian have devised.
After a tense text exchange with her dad, 16-year-old Margot Kim (Michelle La) goes missing. Because the teen has been embezzling and hoarding her piano-lesson fund, the detective on the case (Debra Messing) thinks she's a runaway. Her dad, David (John Cho), doesn't want to believe it, so he turns to a new source of answers: Margot's laptop.
At this point, viewers may expect things to get scandalous: Was the seemingly shy and dutiful teen chatting with online predators? Posting naughty videos? Writing dino porn? It's a staple of the genre, established in Laura Palmer days, that angelic missing girls have sordid secret lives.
But, in keeping with their pixilated-realist aesthetic, the filmmakers take a less pulpy path. The film opens with a rapid montage of online ephemera showing us Margot's growth from infancy to adolescence and the simultaneous physical decline of her mom (Sara Sohn), who eventually succumbs to lymphoma. Reminiscent of the famous opening montage in Up, it's an introduction that bonds us strongly to the characters, situating father and daughter in the aftermath of loss.
As a result, David's need to find his daughter feels as urgent as Margot's solitude and disaffection feel believable. Because Searching straddles the line between mystery and drama — the opening could have been lifted from a weepie — it's genuinely, and sometimes deliciously, difficult to predict what will happen next. The movie takes us on a winding route toward its final reveal, sometimes dallying in the land of sensationalism, but always staying true to its two central characters.
There are off moments: In some scenes it feels like Chaganty is goosing the drama too hard, using Torin Borrowdale's creepy score. One key performance calls a bit too much attention to itself. And, while David's bafflement about what today's kids do on the interwebs is a good running joke, it's hard to believe he takes so long to check Margot's browsing history.
But these are quibbles about a smart little film that does precisely what it sets out to do: keep us guessing, and caring. For all the talk about how cellphones supposedly killed the thriller genre (by making it less likely for characters to get stranded incommunicado), there's plenty of evidence that tech actually opens up new possibilities for peril. A welcome oasis in the movie desert of early fall, Searching is Exhibit A.