If the Unfriended franchise was the first film to have visualised the realities of how young people use the internet and social media, albeit wrapped up in nonsensical psychological horror tropes, then Searching effectively manages to stage a tangible portrait of how older generations are coming to terms with using the internet. The Unfriended films were born of extensive research as to how teenagers and young adults interacted with technology in order to be believable to their target audience, observing all the minute details right down to the title of a torrent file in the protagonist's recycle bin.
Searching, on the other hand, is a techno-thriller that works because the protagonist is largely alien to this technology - unearthing a generational divide that highlights just how little he knew about the world his daughter inhibited prior to her disappearance. It's a devastating family drama, that successfully manages to use its central gimmick to explore shifting familial dynamics and create a foreboding atmosphere in its examination of a father and daughter growing apart. You can't really say that about Unfriended.
John Cho stars as David Kim, a widowed father whose relationship with his daughter has grown distant in the two years following his wife's death. One day, after study group, his daughter Margot (Michelle La) fails to return home, but it isn't until two days later that he files a police report. A detective (Deborah Messing) is swiftly assigned to the case, but no immediate leads appear due to the dawning realisation that David doesn't know anything about his daughter. Logging on to her laptop, he goes through her internet history to find clues as to why she disappeared - and finds that the mystery of who his daughter has grown into is as much of a mystery as her disappearance in the first place.
Large swathes of Searching's run time are spent with the narrative bending over backwards to justify why it continues to play out via desktop images and web browser windows. The found footage conceit seems essential for the first act, but a plethora of gimmicks are used as the story continues; from rolling news online news coverage, to the installation of spycams, director Aneesh Chaganty (making his feature debut) pulls out all the stops to stay true to the established genre. Without wishing to give anything away, Chaganty manages to pull the rug from under the more sceptical members of the audience with a bravura final act that all but justifies the very nature of using desktop found footage as a conceit.
I'd shy away from the hyperbolic "Hitchcockian" tag that other critics have been fast to label his thriller as, but there is something devilishly ingenious as to the art of misdirection throughout that the great director would have approved of. The fact we are witness to a constant POV shot of the protagonist's desktop (and later, his daughter's as he uses it), and all the apps and web pages he frequents, ensures the clues are always there - Chaganty's skill is managing to use this to foreshadow more subtly than you'd expect in this kind of thriller, revealing all the clues early on while the story moves in another direction entirely. It might not be the best found footage film, but it's certainly the rare one whose effective storytelling wouldn't be conceivable in any other form.
If told outside of the found footage gimmick, Searching is merely George Sluizer's The Vanishing for the cyber age - a foreboding tale of male grief that, despite its grim connotations, leaves the bleak depths of the story firmly in the imaginations of viewers. Yet this standard thriller template, and the character archetype of a grieving father, have been given new leases of life by embracing a found footage formula that has long fallen out of fashion elsewhere.
Elsewhere, the opening ten minutes even dares to channel the famous opening scene from Up; a miniature tale of family tragedy told entirely through desktop screens, with the passage of time marked by the switch from Windows 98 to Apple software. Like the rest of the film, it shouldn't work, and yet it sets out its stall perfectly.