Searching is a 2018 American mystery thriller film directed by Aneesh Chaganty in his feature debut and written by Chaganty and Sev Ohanian. Set entirely on computer screens and smartphones, the film follows a father (John Cho) trying to find his missing 16-year-old daughter (Michelle La) with the help of a police detective (Debra Messing). It is the first mainstream Hollywood thriller headlined by an Asian-American actor.
Theatrical release poster
|Directed by||Aneesh Chaganty|
|Music by||Torin Borrowdale|
|Cinematography||Juan Sebastian Baron|
|Distributed by||Sony Pictures Releasing|
|Box office||$75.5 million|
The film premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 21, 2018, and was theatrically released in the United States on August 31, 2018, by Screen Gems. The film was a financial and critical success, grossing over $75 million worldwide against a $880,000 budget and receiving praise for its direction, acting, unique visual presentation and unpredictable storyline. At the Independent Spirit Awards, Cho was nominated for Best Male Lead.
In San Jose, California, David Kim is shown looking through photographs and videos of his daughter Margot and his wife Pamela at various times in Margot's childhood as a happy, close family. Pamela was diagnosed with lymphoma and died right before Margot enters high school.
One night, Margot goes to a friend's house for a study group. While David sleeps, Margot attempts to call him three times. The next morning, David is unable to find Margot but assumes she has risen early to go to school. Later, he calls Margot's piano instructor but is informed that Margot cancelled her lessons six months prior. David discovers that Margot was pocketing the money for the lessons and transferred it to a now-deleted Venmo account. Realizing that Margot is missing, David calls the police. The case is assigned to Detective Rosemary Vick, who asks for information about Margot's personality and friendships. David manages to access Margot's accounts, including Facebook, and speaks to her contacts, but he learns that Margot had become a loner since Pamela's death. Vick calls to report that Margot made a fake ID for herself and shows traffic-camera footage of Margot's car at a highway junction outside of the city, suggesting that Margot may have run away.
David, unconvinced, discovers that Margot was using a live streaming site called YouCast and that she frequently spoke to a young woman called "fish_n_chips". Vick investigates this and reports back that fish_n_chips is innocent, having been sighted in Pittsburgh at the time of the disappearance. From Margot's Tumblr account, David finds that Margot frequently visited Barbosa Lake, which is near the highway juncture where she was last seen. He drives to the lake and finds Margot's Pokémon keychain on the ground. The police arrive and locate Margot's car underwater. Margot's body is not inside, but there is an envelope in the glove box containing the piano lesson money. A sweep of the surrounding area is conducted by the police and volunteers, but a thunderstorm slows progress. Margot's body is not found.
When a boy who knew Margot claims online that she is with him, David tracks him down and attacks him, whereupon Vick forbids him to further investigate her disappearance. However, David visits a site which displays the crime-scene photographs and notices his brother Peter's jacket inside. He then discovers text messages between Margot and Peter, hinting that they might have had an incestuous relationship. When David confronts Peter at his house, the latter explains that they were only smoking marijuana and confiding in each other, and he chastises David for failing to notice that his daughter was depressed. During this confrontation, Vick calls David. She tells him that an ex-convict named Randy Cartoff confessed in an online video to raping and killing Margot, then committed suicide.
An empty-casket funeral is arranged for Margot. As David is uploading photographs to a funeral streaming service, he notices that the website's stock photograph features the same woman as fish_n_chips’s profile-picture. David contacts the woman and discovers that she is a stock model who does not know Margot and that the police never called her. Attempting to report this to Vick, David instead reaches a dispatcher who reveals that Vick volunteered to take the case and was not assigned to it as she claimed. David googles Vick and finds that she knew Cartoff through a volunteer program for ex-convicts. He reports this to the sheriff, and at the funeral, Vick is arrested.
A few days later, Vick has agreed to confess to murder and other crimes in exchange for leniency for her son Robert, who was using the online identity fish_n_chips to get close to Margot because he had a crush on her. Margot sent Robert the money thinking that Robert was a working-class girl whose mother was in the hospital. Robert felt guilty and wanted to give the money back; he decided to do so at the lake. When Robert surprised Margot by getting into her car while she was smoking marijuana, she ran, and in the ensuing scuffle Robert accidentally pushed Margot off a cliff into a 50-foot-deep ravine. Vick decided to cover up the incident, pushing the car into the lake, creating the false fake ID and the fish_n_chips alibi as a waitress in Pittsburgh. When David found the car, proving that Margot could not have run away, Vick turned Cartoff into a fall guy and killed him.
The film then goes back to Vick right after being arrested. As she is being transported into custody, David asks her where Margot's body is, and Vick tells him that Margot's body is in the ravine but that even if she had survived the fall, she could not have lived five days without water. David tells the police to turn the car around, pointing out that the storm occurred on the third day of the search, which would have provided Margot with water. At the ravine, the rescue crew discovers Margot severely injured but alive.
Two years later, Margot is shown to have applied for college to major in piano, with her acceptance status as pending. Through texts, David tells Margot that Pamela would have been proud of her, something he neglected to do at the start of the film.
- John Cho as David Kim, Peter’s brother, Pamela Nam's husband and Margot's father
- Debra Messing as Detective Sergeant Rosemary Vick, Robert’s mother
- Michelle La as Margot Kim, the daughter of David and Pamela Kim and Peter’s niece
- Kya Dawn Lau as 9-year-old Margot Kim
- Megan Liu as 7-year-old Margot Kim
- Alex Jayne Go as 5-year-old Margot Kim
- Sara Sohn as Pamela Nam Kim, David's wife and Margot's mother
- Joseph Lee as Peter Kim, David's brother and Margot’s uncle
- Steven Michael Eich as Robert Vick, Rosemary's son
- Ric Sarabia as Randy Cartoff, ex-convict
- Sean O'Bryan as Radio Jockey
- Colin Woodell as 911 Operator
The idea of the film was initially conceived as an 8 minute short film. When Aneesh Chaganty and Sev Ohanian pitched the concept to The Bazelevs Company, they declined their offer to make it a short and instead gave them the offer to make it into a feature film. While Ohanian was open to the offer and saw its potential, Chaganty was hesitant since he believed a feature film would be stretching the concept and feel too gimmicky. But after coming up with the intro, they felt like the concept for the film would work. The character, Rosemary Vick, was named after Rosemary's Baby and The Shield's character Vic Mackey. Actor John Cho turned down the role of David Kim at first because he felt that the film would not be doable.
The film was shot over various devices. These include GoPro, Drone (Unmanned_aerial_vehicle), news helicopters, mini dv cameras, webcam, and even director Aneesh Chaganty's iPhone, which became the main camera. The scenes between Cho's David Kim and Debra Messing's Rosemary Vick were all shot in one house, with Cho on one side of the house and Messing at the other. Actress Michelle La described the filming process as a "logistical nightmare".
The film had its world premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on January 21, 2018. Shortly after, Sony Pictures Worldwide Acquisitions acquired distribution rights to the film for $5 million. It was initially scheduled to be released on August 3, 2018, but was pushed back to a limited release on August 24, 2018, before opening wide on August 31, 2018.
Searching has grossed $26 million in the United States and Canada, and $49.4 million in other territories, for a total worldwide gross of $75.5 million.
Searching debuted to $388,769 from nine theaters in its limited opening weekend, for a per-venue average of $43,197. It expanded to 1,207 theaters on August 31, and was projected to gross $3 million over the weekend. It ended up making $6.1 million (including $7.6 million over the four-day Labor Day frame), finishing fourth at the box office. In its second weekend of wide release, the film was added to an additional 802 theaters, and grossed $4.5 million, finishing fifth. It then made another $3.2 million in its third week of wide release.
On review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 92% based on 239 reviews, with an average rating of 7.47/10. The website's critical consensus reads, "Searching's timely premise and original execution are further bolstered by well-rounded characters brought to life by a talented cast." On Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 71 out of 100, based on 34 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews". Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "A" on an A+ to F scale, while PostTrak reported filmgoers gave it a 78% overall positive score.
Variety's Peter Debruge called the film "so unique in its approach that Sundance can only program something of its kind once before the gimmick gets old." Kate Erbland of IndieWire gave the film a grade of "B+" and called it "a true storytelling feat, married with sharp editing that makes the entire effort not only seamless, but also wholly intuitive," also saying, "Aneesh Chaganty's drama transcends its gimmick, offering up a smart and refreshing spin on movies that literally play out on small screens." Screen Rant's Chris Agar gave the film four out of five stars, and summed it up as "a suspenseful drama, buoyed by its innovative film making style and collection of strong performances by its leads." He added, "Even if Searching didn't make effective use of its technology angle, the core story would still work due to Chaganty's script, which packs an emotional punch from its first moments and never holds back."
Peter Travers of Rolling Stone gave the film four out of five stars and wrote "director Aneesh Chaganty, in an exceptional feature debut, does the impossible, building a high-voltage, white-knuckle thriller told almost exclusively through smartphones, laptop screens, browser windows and surveillance footage. Searching is a technical marvel with a beating heart at its core, which makes all the difference". Aisha Harris of The New York Times wrote, "While a somewhat silly reveal in the final act feels ripped from a Law & Order episode, the combination of clever concept reflecting the prevalence of screens in everyday life, and the pleasure of watching a typically underused Mr. Cho take on a meaty lead role make Searching a satisfying psychological thriller."
News18 India's Rajeev Masand gave the film 4/5 stars and stated, "it's difficult to talk about the plot in any detail for fear of ruining the tension and its multiple twists," though "Chaganty has elevated a standard missing-person drama into something quite extraordinary on the strength of his inventive storytelling..." Mihir Fadnavis of Firstpost wrote, "this is a very exciting film that needs to be seen on the big screen and one that seems like an avenue into what the future of cinema could be...Searching has created some sort of a blueprint to make more films like this more easily at a much faster pace."
On August 14, 2019, a sequel was announced to be in development. Chaganty clarified that the story will not "follow the same characters or plot line as the original."
- 2018: Alfred P. Sloan Prize at 2018 Sundance Film Festival
- 2018: NEXT Audience Award at 2018 Sundance Film Festival
- 2018: Sundance Institute / Amazon Studios Narrative Producer Award to producer Sev Ohanian at 2018 Sundance Film Festival
- 2019: Independent Spirit Award for Best Male Lead nomination (John Cho)
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