By Sam Harris | @samewlharris
There’s a moment in the new desktop thriller, Searching, where distraught father David Kim (John Cho) – scrawling through the laptop of his recently missing teenage daughter for clues as to her whereabouts – hits a wall: he’s trying to login to his daughter’s Facebook account, but doesn’t know her password (for whatever reason, her account has been logged out and she doesn’t have autofill password on). David clicks through to reset his daughter’s password, which sends a recovery link to her email address and, upon tabbing over to her emails, he realises yet again that this account is logged out, no password in sight.
In another type of film, one not bound to computer desktops, this’d be a moot point: skipped over with a few cuts, not even considered a plot point. But in this ‘screen life’ film – the next in a line of films produced by director-turned-desktop film-enthusiast, Timur Bekmambetov (the mind behind Wanted… the Angelina Jolie bullet-curving movie) – this moment is included in whole, wrung for an ounce of comedy before drawing the curtains back to reveal a brooding melancholy.
In recovering the missing teen’s email account, David discovers that the recovery email she’s used is her mother’s; a character who lost her battle with cancer two years previous. Moving forward, David must confront the digital echoes and remnants of the past that initiated the unspoken rift between him and his daughter.
It’s a moment that totally encapsulates the rich technical potential of desktop films (proven lucrative with 2015’s Unfriended); recontextualising minor digital experiences into, in this instance, moments of comedy-cum-tragedy, and in other instances, moments of sheer dread. In Searching, these instances straddle the line between hit and miss.
For starters, the thing you’ve gotta buy most about these screen life films is the existence of people who’ll go straight to FaceTime, bypassing completely the pleasantries of a “u ready?” courtesy text and response. If you can suspend your disbelief that far, then this new, totally inspired mode of filmmaking will have you turning your back on any film made outside a computer screen. It’s a post-Paranormal Activity style of found-footage filmmaking that accentuates a new type of intimacy – demons might’ve been scary inside our homes, but they’re infinitely scarier inside our technology.
In this latest foray, we’re out of the horror genre and zoned into thriller territory. We follow the cursor and often still-rendering face of David Kim in the search for his 16-year-old daughter, Margot (Michelle La), after she doesn’t come home from a study group one Thursday night. David misses three(!) FaceTime calls (0 texts) in the middle of the night before being met with nearly two days of radio silence, bringing about a local investigation with Detective Vick (Debra Messing) at the helm.
With a plot bearing so much potential, it’s a shame that the desktop format, despite all its minor moments of grandeur, never feels fully realised. Searching departs from the formal austerity of its predecessors, which locked the desktop screen to the frame and revelled in its many cascading windows, hiding secrets behind tabs and sustaining tension through notification pop-ups. Instead, we’re punched straight into every detail: director Aneesh Chaganty insists in propelling the audience into every beat, cut after cut, so no ‘vital’ clues are overlooked, and hovers over the clean retina displays in a faux-handheld manner that undercuts the rigour of the desktop format in the first place.
Within the still-burgeoning screen life filmmaking style, Searching already feels like a step backwards – like a video essay that leans too hard on exposition and leaves no room for interpretation, or a YouTube video doused in annotations. In stretching the action across an extended period, the desktop gimmick truly feels like a gimmick – Chaganty relies way too much on conventional techniques that supersede the possibilities that this new screen life form allows. Individual desktops are logged in-and-out of and primed for minor payoffs – a formal choice necessary to sustain the narrative’s many twists and turns – but the film is ultimately worse for wear. Haunted Spotify (one of Unfriended’s many iconic idiosyncrasies) has been uninstalled and replaced by a non-diegetic score; it’s all too neat, foregoing the messiness of our tech-saturated existences for polished, populist thrills.
For the uninitiated, or for those not enraptured by Unfriended’s Skype-centric spooks, Searching marks a good initiation into the soon-to-be-everywhere style of filmmaking. Within a few years we’ll probably be seeing new screen life films every week (a Snapchat version of Romeo & Juliet among the already-confirmed titles – yes, this is real life, and yes, you should be excited.) Should Profile, Bekmambetov’s own debut in the desktop department, find itself an Australian release, you’d be better off saving your $$$ for that. In the meantime, Searching’s by-the-numbers mystery has enough desktop-trickery to keep you logged off for a few hours.