We spend an awful lot of time in front of our screens these days. Whether it’s for work, play or whatever else we do with our time, much of it involves staring at people not in the same room as us, and at streams of information that kind of show us another person’s life, but don’t really get to the heart of it. Much has already been made of the notion that in an age of endless alerts, push notifications, social media, and all the rest that goes with it, we somehow feel more alone and apart from each other than ever before. That might not be the most true assessment of these technologies’ affects on our lives, but it does provide fertile ground for storytelling. And that is where we find Searching, a clever missing persons thriller that asks deeper questions about whether or not somebody can become a missing person before they actually vanish from sight.
The story takes place in San Jose, California, modern day. David Kim, his wife Pamela and their daughter Margot are the picture of modern American happiness and success. But the family’s story is only just getting started when Pamela succumbs to cancer, leaving David and Margot to figure out how to fill a hole in their lives they never anticipated. They don’t do such a great job of supporting each other, and as Margot grows up, she and David grow apart. So when Margot suddenly doesn’t come home one night, David isn’t sure what to think of it. But he soon realizes he has cause to worry. And as worry turns to fear and fear turns to terror, his worst nightmare as a parent forms before his eyes. The police and the public are soon scrambled in a mad dash to find Margot, and as often happens in an age of hot takes, bad reporting and social shaming, soon David is himself the subject of his own daughter’s missing person case. All David has to anchor him is his own search for the truth, through the mountain of digital footsteps we leave behind: phone logs, e-mails, social media activity, surveillance footage, GPS data, facial recognition…the works. As David’s quest to find Margot deepens, the question isn’t whether he will find his missing daughter. It’s whether he can find her in time.
This is a surprisingly smart and effective thriller that takes advantage of a pretty fun gimmick: telling the entire story from the point of view of somebody else’s camera lens. So everything we see is either somebody at a computer (seen through the flip side of the screen), on a smartphone, in a video conference, on a news camera, and so on. It’s a fresh take on epistolary storytelling in the modern context of our-online, cameras-everywhere way of life. And to a certain degree, the way in which we are forced to view this story strictly through a viewpoint we know can be controlled—only we cannot control it—is a handy comment on how much we think we can control the narrative of our lives or should control narratives of others.
Thankfully, Searching doesn’t dwell so deeply on the novelty of its own format that it forgets to focus on the things that really count here: the character of David, his frantic race against time to find his daughter (folks who go missing more than 48 hours rarely turn up alive, we are informed), and the growing realization that maybe if he had built a better relationship with Margot in the first place, none of this would ever have happened. It’s one thing to fear for your child’s life. It’s quite another to grapple with the very real possibility that you had a part to play in the danger they are facing. David isn’t a bad guy. But he did have a long and hard grief journey, as did Margot. And sometimes grief as a way of pulling people together. Sometimes else, not so much. It’s nobody’s fault, really, but just try telling society that.
There is a terrific subtext during this movie in which we see the social shaming cycle rear its ugly head. As #FindMargot hashtags begin to dominate everyone’s life for about 24 hours, a lot of people decide, on their own spare stores of information, to identify David as the culprit in this case. It’s a conclusion we know is inevitable in a story of this kind, and seeing David suffer through all that is pretty tough to see. After all, nobody is immune from the entire internet deciding you are the worst person who ever lived. We are all just one really bad day away from being grist for the internet rage machine. And seeing David stare at the screen as a haunted shell of himself is a dire moment of truth we all know is lying in wait for us if we ever stray from a path that isn’t particularly well defined.
Perhaps the best part about Searching, though, is the way in which it shines a light on these parts of our ultra-connected, ultra-networked lives. Yes, we get plenty of reasons to recognize the things that frighten or discourage us about this new intersection of society and technology we are wading across—the fake friendships, the hot takes, the misinformation, the ability to only see the side of a story people choose to see, the notion that your information isn’t really yours to control. But more importantly, it also shows us how David uses these very things to see if he can save his daughter. Searching isn’t a polemic about our new lives. It’s simply a story set very deeply within it, and has the courage to both comment on the state of things without getting on a soapbox about it. It’s a rare thriller with that kind of restraint.