How much do parents actually know about their kids?

That seems to be the overriding question in writer/director Aneesh Chaganty’s clever thriller, in which single parent, David Kim (John Cho), is plunged into a world of unbearable suspense when his teenage daughter, Margot (Michelle La), suddenly and inexplicably goes missing. When she fails to answer the many phone calls and text messages he sends her, his only recourse is to find a way onto her social media pages and start quizzing the various ‘friends’ he finds there – only to discover that Margot doesn’t seem to have any real friends – and that the daughter he cares so much about has mysterious secrets she has been keeping from him. Why has she lied to him about attending her piano lessons? And why has she been regularly sending money to a secret bank account?

At first, Kim tries to go it alone, but when he realises that something bad has surely happened, he dutifully contacts the police and in comes Detective Vick (Debra Messing) to help him sort things out. But, just when I think that some kind of order will inevitably result from this,  Kim starts making fresh discoveries – and the subsequent revelations gleefully pull the rug from under my feet, again and again.

The clever conceit of this film is that it plays out entirely on screens – not just the cinema screen, you understand, so much as computers, FaceTime calls, CCTV footage and rolling news. This kind of thing has been attempted before (perhaps most memorably in the 2014 horror movie, Unfriended), but Searching is a giant step up from that. Indeed, it’s done so ingeniously, that I find myself gasping in admiration at Chaganty’s skill as a storyteller. The opening sequence, which details the gradual demise of Kim’s wife to cancer, manages to make the changes made to an electronic calendar a profoundly moving experience. Later on, lines of text written, but then erased and substituted with something less confrontational, tell their own compelling story.

This is anything but predictable. Indeed, I find myself blindsided and sucker-punched several times during the film which keeps me on the edge of my seat right up to the very end. There are bigger movies out there right now, and the danger is that this little gem could easily get overlooked, but make no mistake: it’s quality filmmaking and well worth your time and effort. Don’t miss it.

4.7 stars

Philip Caveney






There have already been a few unsuccessful attempts to marry the fright movie to the world of social media – Chatroom (2010) springs to mind, or last year’s low budget offering, Open Window – but Unfriended is the first film to really understand how the medium actually works and to exploit it to maximum effect. The film’s events are completely confined to the screen of a computer and the interconnected Skype calls of five young friends who find themselves being trolled by a sixth, initially unidentified caller. Whoever it is seems intent on carrying out an ever more vicious revenge for something the others have all been involved in. Could the trolling have anything to do with the first anniversary of the suicide of Laura Barns (Heather Sossaman) a young woman who killed herself after a humiliating film of her drunken indiscretions was publicly aired on Facebook? It’s in no way a spoiler to say, yes, it could, big time.

Considering the restrictions of the staging, Unfriended manages to generate almost unbearable levels of tension, often in the most unexpected ways – the time, for instance, it takes for an emailed link to download, or the way in which characters, composing text messages, repeatedly edit themselves before pressing send. The young cast of unknowns do a pretty good job of convincing us that they are genuinely terrified. As events move from the explicable to the paranormal, there’s plenty of stylish chills to enjoy, despite the film’s 15 certificate. Some of the (admittedly fleeting) gore effects surely challenge that categorisation, but maybe I’m being picky. The film certainly isn’t for everyone. There were a few mid-movie walkouts at the screening I attended and a row of kids sitting behind us, seemed to think it was fine to chatter all the way through it, just as they would if they were on social media themselves. Maybe they don’t get out much.

Unfriended is a valuable addition to the horror genre, much more satisfying that the majority of found-footage, shaky cam offerings that have arrived, seemingly relentlessly,  in the wake of the seminal Blair Witch Project. But be warned. This film could put the more nervous viewer off using social media for life.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney