“Zuck: Yeah so if you ever need info about anyone at Harvard
Zuck: Just ask
Zuck: I have over 4,000 emails, pictures, addresses, SNS
[Redacted Friend’s Name]: What? How’d you manage that one?
Zuck: People just submitted it.
Zuck: I don’t know why.
Zuck: They ‘trust me’
Zuck: Dumb fucks.”
– Mark Zuckerberg IM’ing an unidentified friend, as reported by Business Insider on 13 May 2010
As I write this, Funny or Die has thus far aired five episodes of its latest web series, Tween Fest. Though it posits itself as a satire of Web 2.0 “stardom”, it’s clearly just the poorly-shot kvetching of a bunch of 40- and 50-somethings punching down at the smartphone generation. I may have chuckled once so far, but it says something when not even John Michael Higgins can deliver consistent laughs. Still, he makes the perfect avatar of a Boomer who thinks they’ve run out of letters with which to label generations.
The bellyaching of the producers of Tween Fest is nothing new. Having come of age in the ‘80s and ‘90s, I clearly remember similar harrumphing about the rise of video and the internet, respectively. What’s more, I’ve done enough media study to know that each and every flimsy argument made was the same one that accompanied the rise of television, radio, and even the printed press. Every knew piece of technology supposedly signals The End of Days, yet here we still are.
Still, there’s something to be said about Andy Warhol’s “15 Minutes of Fame” in the age of Facebook and Google giving away personal info like free food samples at a grocery store. It raises some genuinely intriguing questions about how one can hid theirself when nearly every move they make is tracked and broadcast for all the world to see.
Searching presents itself as an answer to those questions. It isn’t really, but it’s a helluva lot more knowledgeable than some alarmist piece-of-shit like The Circle.
Many aspects of David’s life have been seen through a computer monitor. Since losing his wife to cancer, his main priority has been his teenage daughter Margot. Though father and daughter communicate as regularly as any middle-aged parent and teen (which is to say, not a lot), David would like to think he knows his daughter well. All of that changes in a single night.
When Margot fails to come home the morning after a study group, David becomes worried. Before long, he’s filing a missing person’s report and set the entire Bay Area out looking for his daughter. But as David breaks digs deeper and deeper into Margot’s social media life, it becomes clear that there was a side of his daughter he never knew at all.
I’ll say this about Searching: it doesn’t really do anything original, but what it does it does well. The opening sequence – seen entire through a desktop running Windows XP – reminded me of the opening to Pixar’s Up in the way it showed David and Margot’s marriage through images rather than dialogue. Major sequences in which a character begins to type, reconsiders, deletes, then re-types all ring true. Even the relative simplicity with which David “breaks into” Margot’s accounts reminds me of how many times I’ve wanted to smack people over the head for saying they forgot their password (that’s what the “Forgot Password” option is for, dummies).
For the most part, the film successfully holds the veneer of we, the audience, watching David live-type, as if sharing the screen during chat. It will break this illusion several times by having a musical score playing and by focusing on a part of the screen in a way not by enlarging a window, but by a camera zooming in on a computer screen. Nevertheless, Searching maintains its illusion much better than the few clips I’ve seen from the similarly-gimmicky Unfriended flicks.
And that’s a good thing, because the story is as clichéd as they come. Take away all the gimmicks and what you’ve got is just a run-of-the-mill “my child is missing” thriller you’d expect to see in a made-for-tv movie. The twists were pretty well-done without being insulting dumb. Still, I wish the film had the courage to go for the sad ending they were moving towards. I get it: you’ve got a lotta kids coming to see this flick, so you don’t wanna end on a big downer. Nevertheless, it would have been a bold move by writer/director Aneesh Chaganty if he’d gone all the way instead of holding back.
And I’d be remiss not to praise the performance of John Cho as David. If you’re gonna spend 90-or-so minutes primarily focused on the pixelated face of one person, that better be a person whose face with which we can sympathize. No matter what the ridiculous clichés of script, Cho brings a wonderful realism to David that makes us feel every bit of worry and hysteria he feels. The film’s best achievement is that Cho’s performance is so great that even when we don’t see his face – say, a particular scene when he makes the painful decision whether or not to delete an old file – we know exactly what sort of anguish his face might show.
And it’s to Chaganty’s credit that the film does feel “in the now”. It knows that a man in his 40s is just as likely to use a smartphone and regularly FaceTime or Skype with colleagues and relatives, but they still won’t be as up-to-speed on modern tech as contemporary teens. Rather than rant like an angry old man, Chaganty sees how all of this absurdly invasive technology could actually assist in finding out necessary details to which you otherwise wouldn’t have access. That doesn’t mean the invasion of privacy is justified – the tech in the film is amoral and the characters (mercifully) never take any soap box positions – but that the issue is more complex than “I remember when we’d just memorize everyone’s phone numbers.”
Searching doesn’t reinvent the wheel, but it also doesn’t take a holier-than-thou approach to technological innovation. It’s a paint-by-numbers thriller elevated by a really good performances and a gimmick that doesn’t wear out its welcome. It’s nothing incredibly special, but it deserves credit for being more than simply “not terrible”.