Tuesday, January 23, 2018

Sundance ’18: Search

The internet most likely contributed to Margot Kim’s disappearance, but maybe it can also help find her. Technology is probably neutral at best in this case, but the film in question still won the Alfred P. Sloan Prize, bestowed on films addressing science and technology, at this year’s Sundance. It is every parents’ nightmare, but Margot’s father David will find plenty of clues on her laptop in Aneesh Chaganty’s Search, which screens during the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

The last time David Kim talked to his daughter before she went missing, he scolded her over a face-time chat. The Kims are very connected and online, so we can follow their story via various computer and iPhone screens. Tragically, the Kims are still reeling from the untimely death of their wife and mother Pamela Nam Kim. Now, it is just the two of them, unless you also count stoner Uncle Peter.

Alas, Kim was not awake when his daughter tried to call him late the night of her disappearance, but circumstances initially conspire to offer false explanations for her absence. Unfortunately, after a few days, Kim is forced to file a missing person report. The detective assigned to the case is one of the stars of the department, but the trail is cold. Working with her, Kim will scour his daughter’s social media accounts for leads. Eventually, he takes deep dives into her online browser history, which will indeed produce clues. However, it also leads to the unsettling realization he did not know his daughter as well as he thought.

This story told on computer screens already has ample precedent, including “The Sick Thing that Happened to Emily When She was Younger,” Joe Swanberg’s segment in the original V/H/S film and Matthew Solomon’s Chatter. However, Chaganty refines the technique in a way that develops character much more than its predecessors. After the first act, the audience will be deeply invested in all three Kims, including the late mother.

Despite his Star Trek fame, John Cho still has the appropriate everyman quality necessary to carry off a role like David Kim. He covers a wide emotional range and develops some genuine paternal chemistry with Michelle La’s Margot. La gives a remarkably poignant and vulnerable performance that also greatly helps Chaganty manage the revelation of Margot’s secrets. Sara Sohn is simply devastating as Pamela Kim and Joseph Lee perfectly calibrates the surprisingly complicated Peter Lee. That makes sitcom star Debra Messing the weak link as the problematically pedestrian Det. Vick. Still, the rest of the ensemble more than compensates.

You could say Search is built around a gimmick, but the execution is tight and tense, so viewers will get caught up in it anyway. Editors Nick Johnson and Will Merrick deserve special credit for cutting all the disparate clips and screens together so smoothly. Search happens to be one of several films currently playing Sundance that inspire caution and paranoia with respect to social media. However, Chaganty and co-screenwriter Sev Ohanian present a fuller, more nuanced vision of online technology and its proper functions in society. Highly recommended, Search screens again this morning (1/23), Thursday (1/25), and Friday (1/26) in Park City, as well as Saturday (1/27) in Salt Lake, as part of this year’s Sundance Film Festival.