The found footage genre hasn’t been exclusively a horror genre almost from its inception from lesser known pictures like 84C MoPic up through more modern projects such as Chronicle, Project X, End of Watch, Europa Report, and Into the Storm. It certainly lends itself far more to the horror genre though and one of the more intriguing and fairly successful takes on it has been the Unfriended series. It may have used a single computer screen capture as opposed to the more traditional film camera used by others in the subgenre, but the way the films have integrated video and multiple format all while sticking strictly too the format has been their greatest strength, even when let down by acting and/or plot.
It’s not surprising then that someone else would try to capitalize on the format or that eventually someone would try to move it from its horror roots. Searching differs in its approach notably straight off from the Unfriended films in quite a few ways besides genre. For one, gone is the real-time format. Even after the Up-like montage depicting a child’s growing up using her computer and of course the tragic struggles with cancer of her mother, the movie is jumps along frequently over a period of a few days. Also gone is the single computer format as a couple computers (belonging to both the child and her dad) and even a phone serves as outputs for the film.
Most noticeably though, is that the film is decidedly more cinematic, incorporating zooms and non-diegetic music. Perhaps that’s why the creators are trying to make the “screenlife” subgenre a thing, but it reads as cynical to me. It certainly makes the film more polished, but it’s also not nearly as immersive of a film, adding a layer of disconnect that the found footage or screenlife or whatever you want to call it is supposed to add. Plus, the music they add feels like it was added from a cheesy Investigation Discovery show and doesn’t actually add to any of the suspense.
Which I guess brings us to the actual plot. John Cho plays David Kim, a loving father dealing with the loss of his wife less than a year prior and a high school age daughter he is struggling to connect to. While he is asleep, he misses three phone calls from her. The next day, she never comes home from school and doesn’t respond to any of his calls or texts, setting off the missing persons case that will dominate the plot. Not really knowing her or any of her friends, David must use her laptop to investigate with the help of Copmom Momcop (Debra Messing), must try to find out what happened to her before it is too late.
Cho is the obvious glue holding this film together and the one thing making the film stand out. It’s a fantastic performance requiring a wide range of emotions while also keeping the big dramatic scenes in check when called upon to deliver. Few actors have such an ability to get you so instantly on their side and feel for them and their every moment of pain. He’s at the center of just about every interaction and elevates everyone around him whose performances could best be described as functional.
The thriller aspect of the film itself is fine. There are certainly some contrivances (that she didn’t lock her laptop with a password being a big early one, but I’ll allow it for the movie to happen as there are worse), but for the most part, that aspect of the plot is well-handled. It also avoids most of the edge of your seat trappings of the typical missing person thriller, feeling much more methodical and dramatic in its approach. There’re a few suspenseful scenes, but the emphasis is more on just how frustrating this is especially for someone who believes his daughter was taken and yet doesn’t know his daughter the way he thought and can’t get anyone to believe him. It lets in some paranoia elements, but they generally more in the form of a depressingly believable trip to Reddit and work best when it sticks to that.
The countless comparison here to Unfriended clearly show that I had a hard time moving past it when judging the movie. Maybe if these films become more numerous the way found footage as a whole has, it will be easier to judge on its own terms, but for now, it’s inescapable. It’s inarguably a better made, better acted, and better written film than either of its two unrelated predecessors (which I liked), held back only by its less interesting use of the medium. I’m fine with films mixing up how they integrate various forms of footage and impart information to the audience, but with each release, I feel they cheat more and more, undercutting the very reason for the found footage and rendering it a gimmick. Still, that’s not enough to keep Searching from being absorbing and compelling.