Looking for a cautionary tale?

by Shane Dillon
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While we continue our wait for the world-conquering Crazy Rich Asians to open here, crushing all other films open at the time, here’s what a wag might label ‘Worried Average Asian’, instead.

That would be a nod at David (John Cho), the more-or-less average dad at the heart of Searching (Cert 12A, 102 mins), which has popped up here after taking a little while to cross the pond.

Pop up is a term that’s perhaps particularly relevant to the film, as pop-ups – of the internet, videoclip, messaging and more kinds – are the tools of much of this techno-thriller mystery.

Widower dad David is forced into action when his teenage daughter, Margot (Michelle La) goes missing, but it’s ‘action’ that’s much more relatable than the type that we see most dads enact in Hollywood films.

A missing kid in pretty much any other film would very soon see Dad kicking in doors, trading punches, firing guns and so on – here, David’s ‘action’ is largely confined to tapping away on computers and other gadgets, trying to follow an electronic trail as he’s forced to snoop on his daughter’s life to try to figure out where the hell she might be.

That’s an interesting twist on the standard missing kid trope, with director Aneesh Chaganty taking a relatively novel approach to make the screen reflect and show what David is looking at or using in his search.

Thus, the ‘big screen’ reflects the little screens that David is using, with laptop screens, video messaging, videoclips, tv footage and more moving the story along and dominating the story’s framing, in the most literal sense.

However, while David’s cyber-sleuthing is interesting enough to watch, it’s hard not to think that director Chaganty knows he’s grabbed a great concept: the artifice of modern life for many people, but especially for teenagers, and their generally oblivious parents and elders.
So, while David has thought that Margot was popular with lots of friends, grabbing her tech and then trawling through her online life (using a little detective work to crack her passwords) soon reveals how little he really knows.

That, perhaps, is the most interesting thing about the film, rather than its generally creative way of framing the plot’s development via the on-screen unravelling of Margot’s life.

It’s not exactly a eureka moment of originality, but it’s hard not to think that Missing does indeed tap into – pun intended – some interesting (and worrying) points about social media, cyber- versus real-life relationships with other people, and the lengths people (especially kids) may go to as they try to frame how ‘great’ they are, rather than share the true, imperfect reality of their life.

As such, while the film’s presentation is definitely style over substance, it’s hard to ignore the kernel of unsettling truth at the heart of the film.

It’s a strong central role for Cho, who carries the film very well (with some help from Debra Messing, in a supporting role) as pretty much an Everyman Dad forced down some unsettling paths.

If the cautionary film gradually drifts into some wayward waters in the final act, well, I think the interesting journey towards its slightly disappointing denouncement excuses putting a few feet wrong.

At the very least, it’s a film that should be seen on the big screen, now, as it’ll lose a lot of impact (as well as being harder to follow) when eventually released on the small-screen formats that it artfully mimics.

Verdict: 7/10

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