Much has been made of the way Aneesh Chaganty’s feature debut Searching takes place entirely on screens. The film, which stars John Cho as panicked father David Kim looking for his missing daughter Margot (Michelle La), is an exciting, heart-wrenching thriller bolstered by gimmicky conceit: all of the action unfolds over text, Facetime, Youtube, news footage, and various other social media and video streaming platforms. The innovation definitely sets the film apart, giving it an intimacy that is rarely achieved off the theater stage. Moments like dragging images and video to the virtual trash bin hold extra weight when you’re watching someone make those decisions in real time. Everything feels slower and more purposeful. By the end of the film, the simple image of a mouse hovering over onscreen button or a camera slowly panning to the other side of a room had me on the edge of my seat. Cinematographer Juan Sebastian Baron really makes the most of each frame, squeezing every ounce of tension out every seemingly small communication.
John Cho cements his leading man credentials as David, as the screens reveal every crease of his highly emotive face. The intimacy of technology makes us feel closer to him, sharing in his pain as he simultaneously tries to keep up hope and deal with the inevitable grieving process as doubt of his daughter’s survival mounts. He is already grieving his wife (Sara Sohn) and the possibility of duel loss compounds turning him from mild-mannered dad to hard-boiled detective. One sequence where he tries to catch his brother (Joseph Lee) in a lie is thrilling and dark, enhanced by the multiple views of the encounter through various hidden cameras.
But what is most striking to me about Searching is not the presentation, but the story itself–specifically the conclusion.
*** (SPOILERS) ***
Near the end of the film, it is revealed that Detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing), a supposedly clean-nosed cop with a picture-perfect social media presence, is responsible for covering up the assault and attempted murder of Margot as well as facilitating the “suicide” of a troubled ex-con she framed for the crime. She does this all to protect her son Robert (Steven Michael Eich) who had been stalking, manipulating and catfishing Margot for the past 6 months. Posing as a girl to get close to her, Robert created a fake persona that Margot cared for so much that she started stealing money from her dad to provide “her” with a hospital fund. When questioned, Detective Vick explains away her son’s behavior with an eery casualness. She mentions how Robert had a crush on Margot since they were young and paints his obsession as innocent. It’s chilling to watch. And her refrain (“It’s my son.”) doesn’t soften any of her actions.
But even if we explain away this defense as a woman doing anything for her son, we must also assess to the collateral damage to her crusade. She nearly let a teenage girl with a promising future die because she did not want her son to go to prison. Her son was never in danger of death, but Margot was. And Margot’s death meant little to her. So little in fact that she was able to look into the face of a grieving father hanging on by a thread every day for nearly a week and lie to him. Why?
Because in her eyes, someone’s Asian daughter does not have the value of her white son. In her efforts to throw David off, she assassinates Margot’s character, painting her as a secretive duplicitous young woman with a fake ID who just wanted to run away. In reality, Margot was the victim of being nice, likable and generous enough to make sacrifices for a person she didn’t even know. But Robert is no victim–unless of course, you see the world in a way that prioritizes the young, affluent, troubled white male.
Vick’s argument on behalf of her son uses language that paints young white males as victims of their own desire, entranced by the girls they are attracted to. Walking out of Searching, I couldn’t even remember if Vick had actually said the words “he couldn’t help it” or if I just put them into her mouth because I was so used to those feeble defenses from white women like her. In their world, men will always be one mistake away from having their lives “ruined”–whether that mistakes deeply alters the life of a woman, especially a woman of color, doesn’t matter. The preservation of their “nice white sons” always takes top priority.
What’s depressing about it is that they think they’re protecting the men in their lives, but what they’re really doing is coddling them–leaving them emotionally unprepared to contend with the world in all its complexities and disappointments. They grow up to be adults who never learned to take no for an answer or even be emotionally aware enough to read nonverbal cues. Whether intentional or not, Searching is clued into one of the most depressing realities of white males in America. Their emotionally stunted, entitled behavior doesn’t just spring up when they become adults. They are raised to see others, especially women, as a means to an end. By trying to protect her son, Vick doomed him to a life of anger, misunderstanding, and pain. And in the future, more women will likely bear the brunt of it.