The Distorting Lens of Social Media in Searching

Aneesh Chaganty’s Searching is an illustration of how much of ourselves we hide and how much we share. The film, shown entirely through the lens we use online, whether through social media, email, photos, videos, phone calls, or video chats, is poignant in its celebration and reproof of how we present ourselves differently to different audiences, and how much of that is or isn’t a true reflection of who we are at heart.

The film concerns the relationship between David Kim (John Cho) with his teenage daughter, Margot (Michelle La). The story opens on the Windows desktop of the Kim family. We see David's relationship with his wife, Pam (Sara Sohn), along with the birth and growth of Margot through photos, videos, calendars, and timelines. Through these individual moments, we connect with the family, share their triumphs and sorrows as Pam first gets lymphoma, then recovers, only to die from it when it makes a resurgence. All of this is undeniably sweet and tragic but is ultimately nothing we haven’t seen before in other films like Unfriended, Paranormal Activity and the like.

What makes this film interesting is that it uses this technique, not as a simple gimmick, but as the very thing it’s investigating. What are the differences between the masks we wear to our parents, to our friends, to our wider circle of acquaintances, the film asks. How can we spot the difference between the mask and the person wearing it, and how much of seeing this behind the scenes footage is necessary for establishing and keeping an authentic relationship with someone?

The film presents us with many moments where the audience can clearly see a disconnect between what the person is portraying to the other characters and what we know to be true. For example, at the beginning when David is telling Margot that he’s ok with her staying out to study, we can see the indecision on his face. We can also hear the frustration in his voice when he reprimands her about not taking the garbage out. Those of us who are parents may even see that exchange as being far less about household chores, and more about him losing his connection with her.

If we can see this, then it’s certainly visible to the characters in the film. But as so often happens when people are involved in a situation, their closeness to the events or their own desires cloud their vision.

David hears, just as we can, Margot’s hesitance when she’s answering his questions. The look on his face hints that he’s probably also considering whether her reactions are a reflection of her embarrassment of talking to her dad with her friends in hearing distance, or whether there’s something more mischievous at play. Armed with the same information we have, he makes the choice to trust her.

The film also presents us with information privy only to him, like when he types a reply or a question, only to erase it before writing and sending something completely different. We see him move from annoyed that she didn’t take out the trash and left her laptop at home to angry that he hasn’t heard from her all day to a slow realization and panic that she didn’t come home at all.

We watch him hesitate before signing in on her computer, afraid to violate her privacy. Once he’s signed in he realizes he’s not part of her online world at all, not part of her Facebook friends, nor her Instagram, Tumbler, or YouCast (like Twitch) communities. He becomes the detective, uncovering the personas she’s presented on each of these. Upon viewing her posts, at first he thinks she’s popular and has many friends, but once he begins contacting them he hears from them that they barely knew her anymore. As he uncovers new material he realizes that girl he thought he knew, he didn’t really know at all.

Boiled down to its basics, it’s a pretty standard detective story, but it’s online wrappings give it a familiar, yet strange feeling. As a parent with only the barest knowledge of what my 16-year-old does online, it left me both frightened and excited for the gulf between the girl I know and the girl she really is.

Ultimately, Searching is a fascinating portrait of a relationship where the parent is trying to get to know his child through her online persona, comparing it with what he “knows” of her in person and the disconnect between the two personalities. For me, the missing-persons aspect of the film was merely a device to add a sense of life-or-death drama to this exploration.

That being said, the third act left me disappointed. As much as the first two acts forged new ground, the third retreads familiar Hollywood surprises so much that it left me wishing a European director would remake it and finish it right.

In fact, Chaganty’s work on Searching, kind of reminds me of M. Night Shyamalan’s The Sixth Sense, in the sense that they are both captivating stories that use a device to further their investigation into the nature of people. Only future films will show us whether Chaganty falls into the same trap Shyamalan eventually did by letting his story take a back seat to his dramatic devices.