Monday, June 25, 2018

Independent film Festival Boston 2018.55: Searching

Festival planning: When one festival announces an early preview of a movie that you know will be playing another one later - say, when IFFBoston has a very early screening of Searching and you've already received an email about it playing Fantasia - go for it. This will make things easier later.

Anyway, no actual guests, but a recorded pre-show thing about how director Aneesh Chaganty has always made films outside the typical third-person linear style, ending on a request to share thoughts on social media with a couple of hashtags, which is impressively confident. I still half-expect eFilmCritic will soon get an email saying to hold the review until an embargo date, though.

If the director or a producer or someone had been present, I would have tried to find a way to ask whether the actual title is Searching|, because I certainly never saw it on-screen without the cursor.


* * * (out of four)
Seen 18 June 2018 in the Brattle Theatre (IFFBoston Preview Series, DCP)

I'm not sure I've seen a "stuff on a screen" thriller which commits to the medium at exactly the level Searching does before, though that may just be the inevitable result of something no longer being a formal challenge but rather just another tool a filmmaker can use if he thinks it will get results. This still kind of feels like a gimmick movie, but it's one where the the story only feels minimally twisted to fit the form.

Writer/director Aneesh Chaganty breaks the usual "real-time" directive that movies being told through what appears on a character's computer screen use, opening with a montage of the Kim family's old Windows machine, as parents David (John Cho) and Pamela (Sara Sohn) raise their daughter Margot, with frequent breaks to show email about Pamela's cancer diagnosis, remission, and inevitable decline. That machine gets put away, and soon we're watching David video-call the teenage Margot (Michelle La), reminding her she forgot to take out the trash. It's the sort of conversation that parents inevitably regret when their kids don't come home one night, as is the case here. Also kind of inevitable - when the detective leading the investigation, Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing), asks David to find out everything he can from Margot's friends and online presence, he finds a lot of things that don't add up.

Many movies told through screens are static things - consider Unfriended from a couple years back, which was shot inventively but rigidly adhered to showing every pixel of its protagonist's screen from corner to corner. Here, Chaganty and his crew stick to familiar, real interfaces but allow the virtual camera to float, zoom, and move over them fully cognizant that this is a movie and not just an experiment. Most get too locked into real time or a static image, and that has its uses such as misdirecting the audience to one window while something important happens in another, but this one goes another direction, feeling more like a movie than a puzzle even as it plays with different sorts of screens and video sources. They will zoom in on the pane showing outgoing video if what's important is the expression on David's face, even if it takes up about 5% of the laptop's screen.

Finding that middle ground gets the film over some storytelling hurdles, but it also means that the film can't lean on being an unusual viewing experience as much as other similar films. There's no escaping that it's fairly bare-bones as thrillers go, not offering an especially complex crime story and not containing an exceptional personal level underneath. It's good - the underlying story of David not being as present in Margot's life as he'd thought before their disappearance basically works - just not groundbreaking. It only really seems to go through the motions in the middle, when a red herring aligns neatly with grabbing at any other video sources the movie could use, and bits about people who are not actually close to Margot being kind of ghoulish seem kind of rote. To be fair, Chaganty and co-writer Sev Ohanian often dispose of familiar tropes as quickly as they are raised.

There are other nice bits, too - the writers have a knack for making the panicked father just out of touch enough that people can supply him (and the less tech- and social-media-savvy viewers) with just enough explanation when needed. They get a lot of visual mileage out of something as simple as various computer "desktops": David's builds from spare and organized to chaotic over the course of the film (he goes from placing information in a clear spreadsheet grid to a screen that just need some red string to go full "obsessed-detective"), while Margot's is friendly but opaque, and the scenes using a lower-resolution, less polished old machine helps sell the idea of digging into the past for information.

Plus there's John Cho, who does pretty darn good work with the material. His David Kim always conveys the right sort of flustered and driven dad who can come across as just clever enough to move things along without seeming like an unbelievable super-sleuth, always finding a tone that plays as easily identifiable to an adult viewer but also believably embarrassing from the perspective of his teenage daughter. Some of what one credits to him is likely from what the audience sees on the screens, raising an interesting question of whether we've culturally grown more adept at imposing personality on text or whether the actors create an impression that lingers, but even when he's in the background and likely to be pixelated into nothing, his body language is always on point. The rest of the cast does fine work as well - Michelle La in particular doesn't appear on-screen a lot, but she's good enough for her scenes as Margot to stand up to the close scrutiny that they will inevitably receive.

It's impressive enough work that Searching will likely still be worth a rewatch when and if screen-capture films become as common as mock-documentaries and found-footage pictures. It's good enough to play as more than an oddity, even if there is still plenty of room for this type of movie to evolve.

(Dead) link to EFC

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