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BELIEVE THE SKYPE
Screenplay: Aneesh Chaganty
Review: RJ Bland
Cyber-horror is a relatively new and sparsely populated horror sub-genre that was launched with 2014's eerily chilling Unfriended. Since then we have had a sequel (albeit an inferior one) and also Friend Request, which also utilised the on-screen format. Despite the fact that the format seems almost - dare I say it - a little refreshing. It's ultimately a spin-off of the found-footage genre which seems to be fading away every year. However, most people are agreed that it's going to be a relatively short lived sub-section of the genre. That is unless you are Timur Bekmambetov. The Russian-Kazakh film-maker (who produced Unfriended and Apollo 18) is apparently committed to a slate of over a dozen 'computer screen movies'. So it may actually last a little longer than most of us think. Bekmambetov's most recent addition to this set is Searching – a film directed Aneesh Chaganty, a film-maker who himself shot to the big time off the back of a Youtube video. Modern technology eh? We signed up to see if the the movie deserved a thumbs up or one of those angry emojis.
Searching begins with one of those schmaltzy montages you seen in an Apple advert or something. A happy young family of three growing up together and sharing special moments, all to the backdrop of hideously optimistic piano music (you know the sort). However, things take an upsetting turn when the mother (played by Sara Sohn) is diagnosed with cancer and passes away, leaving her teenage daughter Margot in the sole care of her husband, David - played by John Cho (The Exorcist TV series). A couple of years have passed when we rejoin the duo and they appear to be getting on with things as best they can. Margot is a forgetful teen and her dad nags her. We all know what that's like. However one evening, Margot doesn't come home after a study group at a friends house. Despite initially thinking that his daughter may have bunked off school, panic sets in when it's confirmed that this isn't the case. No one has seen her and no one knows where she is. The police are notified but as David begins to try and locate his daughter through her online activity, things just get murkier and darker...
There was always a risk that the on-screen format of Searching would prove to be its undoing. You can only sit through so many Skype conversations and Facebook chats surely? It's pleasing to report however that the potentially gimmicky nature of the digital setting actually makes an otherwise run-of-the-mill premise feel a lot more real and engaging. In fact, it wasn't until after the film had finished that it dawned on me that every single scene was witnessed through some bit of tech (be it a laptop, a phone, a TV etc). The fact that Searching manages to pull this off without the experience feeling too restricted or closed off is quite a feat.
There seems to be a bit of an obsession with the whole 'someone goes missing…' premise in both film and TV at the minute but fortunately Searching manages to stand out from the crowd due to the quirkiness of the format and the fact the sheer pace of the film itself. Its twisty-turny plot will have you second guessing every character we come into contact with and formulating your own ideas on what has happened to Margot. Has she been abducted? Has she run away? Has she been murdered? Is there some other explanation? One of the strengths of 'Searching' is that it entertains many possibilities before delivering its reveal - and whilst it may raise a few eyebrows, most people will be satisfied come the closing credits.
The cast is actually pretty tiny but all the major players do their bit to elevate this above most found-footagey thrillers. Michelle La is quietly effective as the missing teenager and Messing provides an energy and narrative balance to proceedings but it is Cho who will (deservedly) take most of the plaudits. He's virtually in every scene and his journey from neurotic father to a man clinging on to hope feels raw and real. What we are watching unfold in front of our eyes is every parents worst nightmare and Cho draws you in and keeps you rooting for him throughout. It would be easy for an actor of overplay the desperation and emotional weight of a widower whose daughter has gone missing but Cho is a believable everyman.
From a thematic point of view, the format is predominantly used as a storytelling feature - there is actually little in terms of social commentary on the nature of social media or the world of the internet. We all know it's a big (and quite often unnerving) place but unlike Unfriended which tackles the issue of cyber bullying, Searching explores more internal themes like family and loss and the breakdown of relationships. Sure the internet and computers allow us to put up barriers - but they are kind of viewed as a symptom of the problem here, rather than being the route cause of the problem itself. Searching may touch a nerve with people who can imagine what it is like if their kid goes missing, but the fear of not really knowing your children is also deeply unsettling for most parents too.
Of course the movie won't connect with everyone. Those who aren't a fan of (or users of) modern computer technology will obviously find the format a little harder to swallow. The format, whilst impressively handled, still feels a little restrictive when compared to what most cinema-goers are used to so that may frustrate others too. Also, if we're being especially nit-picky, the characters themselves are not fleshed out as much as they could be – although this doesn't actually affect how real or grounded in reality most of the story seems. But for the most part, this is an inventive and engaging 100 minutes that will entertain and intrigue most audiences.
'Searching' is a smart and compelling cyber-thriller with some top notch central performances. Whilst not everyone will get on board with the on-screen format, here it used to great effect and adds a sense of realism and modernity to proceedings.
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