The big screen is increasingly obsessed with progressively smaller screens. From 2015’s Unfriended, a horror movie about a Skype group call gone wrong, to 2017’s video-surveillance techno-thriller The Circle, filmmakers have been incrementally testing the cinematic potential of other screen interfaces. Given the paranoia around webcam hacking and our digital footprint, it’s perhaps no surprise that so many of these cross-media movies have tended toward the dark web. Bo Burnham’s recent Eighth Grade considers the more sincere side of vlogging, but other films this summer, such as Sorry to Bother You and The First Purge, explore the underbelly of online video culture. And two new missing-persons crime thrillers, Searching and A Simple Favor, borrow the screen logic of social media to reshape the visual language of the classic mystery movie.
Aneesh Chaganty’s directorial debut, Searching, is a meditation on the status of film in the age of social media overload. The film might otherwise be described as a typical crime thriller, except that all its action takes place across the noncinematic screens of iPhones and computer desktops (not to mention the even smaller embedded screens of web browsers, YouTube, iMessage, etc.). As suggested by its title, Searching tracks the disappearance of Margot Kim (Michelle La)—the teenage daughter of widowed single dad David (John Cho)—who vanishes in the middle of the night after a series of attempted calls to her dad’s iPhone. As viewers, we know this not because anyone tells us, but because we witness the calls happening in real time over David’s MacBook screen—i.e., the movie screen—which registers Margot’s incoming calls next to a FaceTime window of David’s sleeping body in the background.
These scenes of juxtaposition—an incoming phone call placed against a FaceTime video—abound in Searching. Indeed, the film’s seven-minute opening sequence showcases a plethora of competing windows, as it tracks 17 years of the Kim family as documented on their family computer through home videos, webcam selfies, photo folders, and email accounts.
As such, Searching begins by giving us not only the evolution of the life of one family, but of desktop screen culture itself (moving from Microsoft to Apple, of course). The effect is surprisingly poignant. Here, Chaganty’s experience as a former Google commercials creator is evident (he has described the opening sequence as “Up meets a Google commercial”), as the sequence breathlessly takes us from the birth of Margot to the death of her mother by cancer through mouse clicks and a soaring soundtrack.
Against the seamless sentimentality of this opening, however, the remainder of Searching grows darker, more jagged—both visually and narratively. The easy sheen of Chaganty’s prologue is soon displaced by the grainier resolution of street surveillance cameras, FaceTime chats with poor connection, and YouTube clips pulled from newscasts. The longer Margot’s disappearance, the busier these screens become, as David desperately tries to piece together what’s happened to his daughter. It’s as though Margot’s extended absence calls for David’s sustained reconstruction of her through the online traces of her texts, vlog, Instagram, Tumblr, and Facebook accounts. Here, a teenage girl’s messages with another about their favorite Pokémon isn’t simply a conversational whim; it’s evidence. As in the traditional detective genre and as the film’s detective tells David: Anything might be a clue. As David delves further and further into his daughter’s life lived online, the economy of screens in Searching grows dizzying.
In particular, the videos taken from cellphones—many of which are set around a wooded lake where Margot’s body is presumed to have disappeared—have a handheld restlessness that recalls the now infamous shaky-cam aesthetic of The Blair Witch Project. It’s these moments—when characters are running at night in the woods while FaceTiming—that most approach the nauseating atmosphere of the lo-fi horror film. We might even think of The Blair Witch Project as one of the precursors of the social media film, if we think of the hikers’ videos not in terms of “found footage,” but as streaming real-time DIY videos. Less Paranormal Activity and more Logan Paul. Both, of course, terrifying. Here, the shakiness of the camera only adds to the overall uncertainty viewers feel while following the plot of a missing-persons crime thriller.
The more David seeks to piece together Margot’s case from her digital trail, the less and less he seems to understand her. As Margot’s videos proliferate in Searching, the more David—and viewers—sense that we might never get to know her. All the videos don’t resolve into an image of a full person. Instead, the character of Margot becomes a virtual horizon that seems to move only further and further away. While unhelpful for Margot’s dad, this technique—in which the screen content doesn’t add up, but unsettles how we understand a person or narrative to be coherent—is apropos for the genre of the mystery film.
While Paul Feig’s A Simple Favor isn’t as formally experimental as Searching, the presence of screens nonetheless influences how we come to watch the film—also about a woman who vanishes overnight. Like Searching, Feig’s movie opens with a computer screen, through which Stephanie (Anna Kendrick) addresses her mommy vlog viewers about the disappearance of her “best friend” Emily (Blake Lively), whom she met only a few weeks ago. “I’m realizing I don’t know her as well as I thought I did,” Stephanie concedes. Following this, A Simple Favor proceeds largely in chronological order, with far fewer screens than Searching to mediate its action. But that doesn’t mean Feig’s film isn’t as, or even more, scattered a mystery movie. A Simple Favor is much more “traditional” insofar as it only sometimes mediates information through news clips or, crucially, Stephanie’s vlog, but its narrative form is nonetheless hugely influenced by the uneven piecemeal quality of a cross-media crime thriller such as Searching.
For if the gimmick of Searching is that it takes place entirely over busy computer and phone screens, the gimmick of A Simple Favor is its use of flashbacks that contradict what characters are otherwise telling us. Throughout the film, Stephanie and Emily repeatedly share intimate stories about their past in voice-over that are synchronized with flashbacks that immediately undermine what they’re saying. The first few times this happens, it feels a little destabilizing, but after a while we get a sense that we cannot trust what we see on screen, even if it’s being presented to us in otherwise fairly conventional filmmaking. As such, Feig forces viewers to question the truth of the very images he’s presenting us, adding to the doubt already present in the genre of the missing-persons crime thriller—much the way Searching does.
This uncertainty is also what contributes to the tonal weirdness of A Simple Favor, whose opening credits anticipate a French New Wave film, only to dive into Stephanie’s sunny mommy vlog, before introducing Emily, whose whole look we might describe as parodying A Devil Wears Prada. A Simple Favor is constantly bouncing between discrepancies and contradictions. Which do we trust: voice-over or flashback? Stephanie or Emily? Who’s lying? Who’s gaslighting whom? This all comes to a head toward the end of the film, when, in the process of unraveling the many twists, Feig ends with a scene of multiple characters performing not just for the camera, but for each other. The plot is ridiculously convoluted, and that is kind of the point. A Simple Favor is neo-noir meets ladies’ book club, Double Indemnity meets The Philadelphia Story. It’s a crime film that can accommodate more than one perspective—and more than one woman’s perspective, no less.
In combining elements of a rom-com with the crime thriller, Feig gives a sweet nod to the fact that film noir has historically been a genre about the lack of female networks. (How many noir movie premises would fail to launch if any of their femme fatales had female friends to talk to?) In Searching, too, we eventually learn that Margot’s mysterious disappearance is related to her online relationship with someone whom her father believes to be another teenage girl who, much like Margot, has a mother with cancer. If Searching and A Simple Favor are cautionary tales about the rise of social media perils such as catfishing, they’re also reenvisionings of the crime film that prize a modern vision of female solidarity. Feig’s film ends by returning to Stephanie’s mommy vlog—which now, in addition to offering tips about healthy, kid-friendly recipes, functions as a collective female crime-solving community. Agatha Christie lives online now.
Jane Hu is a writer and Ph.D. candidate living in Oakland.