In a world increasingly governed by computers and cyberspace, Searching highlights the real-life ups and downs of living a virtual reality existence, writes Des Sampson.

Technology is omnipresent, pervading our workplaces and our homes through robots, computers, cellphones, social media, gadgets, games and gizmos. Now it's Hollywood's turn to get the cyber-treatment. Searching is a quirky, clever whodunnit that's principally told through the lens of smartphones and computer screens, rather than a camera. It's a groundbreaking approach, with technology playing a pivotal part in the unfolding saga.

"Most films try to avoid using screens and devices because they're not very cinematic, or sexy," admits director Aneesh Chaganty, sheepishly. "We wanted to change that; we wanted to make a film where they're one of the main characters and where the technology you see, in the movie, is the technology you use every day. But we also used the premise that if there were no screens or devices in this film, then it should still work as a story in its own right."

"From the outset, we knew that one of our biggest challenges with this movie - aside from creating a compelling story - was to find the single most cinematic way to represent these otherwise mundane, everyday objects we use all the time," adds producer Sev Ohanian.

"Then we had to find the drama, the tension and, more than anything, the engagement you can create with the audience, from that. We also decided that if we were going to use this approach then we had to do something that hadn't been done before, something that was completely original, which I think this movie is."


It is, Searching is both a journey into experimental cinematography and an emotional, roller-coaster ride with unexpected twists and turns that keeps you hooked to the end. It's a tale of love and loss, lost and found, which highlights how real relationships - not fleeting cyber encounters – matter most, as a father (John Cho) desperately tries to find his missing 16-year-old daughter, Margot, with the help of Detective Rosemary Vick, played by Will & Grace's Debra Messing.

Not knowing where to start, he hacks into her laptop and searches through her web history to unearth clues to her disappearance. But as he delves deeper into her online persona, he discovers that his daughter is not the person he imagined she was, nor is she as perfect as she seemed. Instead, she's been living a shadowy, cyber second-life – one that he doesn't know anything about, except for the fragments found on her computer, online and through the apps she's used.

Director/writer Aneesh Chaganty and John Cho on the set of Searching
Director/writer Aneesh Chaganty and John Cho on the set of Searching

It's a pointed reference - a social commentary - on life today, how we've become obsessed with technology and how the boundaries between the real and virtual worlds are becoming ever more blurred. It also highlights the yawning gap opening up between millennial parents and their children.

"Yeah, from the outset, we tried to make this movie about how, in a world where everything is so connected, at the heart of this story is a dad and a daughter who are disconnected," acknowledges Chaganty, nodding his head animatedly. "In today's world, there are a thousand different aspects and avenues on a computer that can alienate a parent from a kid or anyone from anyone else. That's what we wanted to show.

"The movies not about social media being bad, though," he cautions. "It's just about the internet being all-absorbing and the computer allowing us to use it as a portal for all kinds of emotions. There are some bad sides to it [technology], like making us scared or obsessed, but zoom out and there are some great instances of it too, like helping us connect, fall in love or laugh."

Making a film which uses technology to steer the story and also examine the disparate relationships between its main characters did have its challenges though, as Chaganty explains.

Director/writer Aneesh Chaganty and John Cho on the set of Searching
Director/writer Aneesh Chaganty and John Cho on the set of Searching

"The one thing I love about this movie is that it couldn't have been made before now, because the technology to make it didn't exist, before now. But at the same time we realised, very early on, that there's an irony to making a movie, with technology at its core: by the time we finished making it, everything in it would be completely obsolete because technology changes so fast!"

"Yeah, at some point, we had to stop fighting the inevitable and just accept that, by the time it came out, it'd be a period piece - a time capsule," admits Ohanian, laughing.

"That's why we decided, very early on, that it would definitively be set over the course of just three days, between May 11 and 13 in 2016. That meant that every single line and text, every news item, every device and every website in it looks exactly like it would have then, on those days, in real life."

It's that level of meticulous planning, coupled with a beguiling plot, ingenious cinematography and adroit performances from Cho and Messing that makes Searching a rare find, one which is well worth seeking out.