by Sherry Lipp
When The Blair Witch Project came out in 1999 it ushered in a wave of “found footage” films. These films almost always depicted a group of young people who met their demise in some horrific way, never to be heard from again. The only evidence of their fate is some video camera footage of whatever they were doing before they disappeared. Found footage presented what felt like a voyeuristic look into other people’s lives. These films didn’t have to worry about conventional camera setups, good acting, or even great storytelling. They were meant to look like real life with people having banal conversations and basically being kind of boring.
With the advent of phone cameras, webcams, social media, and life online, the found footage film has morphed into the digital age with computer-based films like the Unfriended movies and now Searching. Unlike the found footage predecessors, audiences watch these stories unfold in real time as if the audience is watching through a webcam, usually through the point-of-view of one of the characters.
What’s changed from the early days is the need for good storytelling and acting. Audiences can only take so much of watching people traipse around through the woods until they’re unceremoniously killed off. In the case of Searching we have a very good performance in John Cho. Cho plays David Kim, the father of a teenage girl who goes missing. His plight plays out online as he makes Facetime calls, chats online, visits cam sites, and views digital home movies.
At first Searching presents an almost uncomfortable look at how digital our lives have become. David’s late wife Pam has meticulously catalogued their daughter Margot’s (Michelle La) life from birth to high school, creating folders and labels for each milestone. When Margot disappears, David can easily find photos, videos, and even a huge list of Facebook friends to share with the police. But how well does David, or anyone else, really know Margot?
I don’t want to give too much away, because this film does rely on a twist, but it’s safe to say that the life Margot portrayed online, wasn’t really the life she was leading. Searching presents some great commentary on how falsely connected we can feel by keeping digital tabs with pretty much everyone we know. Because David relies so much on texting and Facetime, he’s not even worried when he doesn’t see his daughter in person for nearly two days. He’s called and texted a few times, so when she doesn’t answer later, he just assumes she’s busy or that her phone battery died.
Though Searching does a good job of showing how social media, and digital communication, shapes our lives, the story itself leaves a little to be desired. I liked that the film showed how media-hungry we’ve all become. With social media it’s all reality TV. Margot’s classmates can suddenly garner attention by jumping online and spouting off about Margot whether they really know anything or not. Unfortunately, this commentary doesn’t gel as well as it should with the convoluted plotline that probably wouldn’t have passed muster on the average police procedural.
I can only speculate that Searching wouldn’t be reaping as much praise as it has without its still unconventional method of telling the story through computer and phone screens. Despite not feeling satisfied by the story itself I can still give a small recommendation for Searching based on John Cho’s performance. The story kept me guessing for a while, but once I saw where it was going I couldn’t help but be disappointed.
Searching images: Sony Pictures