The gimmick of doing an entire film on a computer screen is not a gimmick I necessarily like. It can be effective in moments, but it can have the same limitations as found-footage movies. Those limitations are really apparent toward the end, but the movie gets around the limitations by showing us news media coverage. However, if you’ve seen MTV’s Catfish (2012), then the structure and flow of this movie won’t feel that unfamiliar. It’s basically using social media for the most part to solve a mystery. Catfish doesn’t try to solve things like murders, but a lot of the same strategies are here. A lot of the same themes from that series are present here too, that of a person’s digital profile being not true to who they really are or people using the anonymity possible through the Internet to connect or use others. In fact, the online phenomenon known as “catfishing” occurs within this movie.
John Cho (Star Trek and Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle) stars as David Kim, a man who lives in San Jose, California, with his teenage daughter. He has a really good office job. He’s a liberal, easygoing dad who only insists his daughter take out the trash. It’s his laptop screen through which the movie is told. We only see his laptop screen and when the movie begins, we get a sequence that is next of kin to the opening sequence to Pixar’s Up (2009). The Pixar film starts with a montage that depicts decades and decades of a family or a married couple’s life in just a few minutes and it’s one of the most heartbreaking and emotional montages ever screened in cinema.
Director and co-writer Aneesh Chaganty in his feature debut creates a similar heartbreaking and emotional montage. Chaganty’s montage isn’t as cinematic as that Pixar film, even with the Pixar film being animation. The heartbreak mainly and easily comes through the subject matter. However, the acting performances, the music and the editing, using a motif of a digital calendar, really help to sell this montage and elevate it to the level of that Oscar-winning Pixar film.
The narrative moves along nimbly with a couple of interesting red-herrings. The final red-herring though feels really contrived, but it’s revealed to be actually contrived, and that’s where the movie started to fall apart for me. David’s teen daughter, Margot, played by Michelle La, goes missing. David joins the police investigation to find her or find out what happened to her. There are a series of suspects who might know something or might have done something. The final suspect felt like an obvious fake-out that when it’s revealed to be fake, it’s not satisfying because the truth fashions an unneeded antagonist that undermines a lot of the great stuff the movie does prior to that last act.
That great stuff includes showing how there can be a disconnect between what people portray as themselves online as opposed to who they are in real-life. People can use the Internet to portray exaggerated versions of themselves. People can also use the Internet to express things that they can’t express in real life. Obviously, this isn’t new. The recent film Eighth Grade by Bo Burnham basically says the same thing.
As mentioned earlier though, the ending and final twist undermines that great stuff because the idea is that David thought he knew his daughter Margot and this movie is meant to expose that Margot is possibly this person who is the complete opposite of who she was in his mind. However, the injection of the ultimate antagonist and last twist leaves us to believe that actually Margot was the person in his mind. Yes, there were a few lies or miscommunications, and maybe that’s the point, but it’s not the disconnect between digital and real-life identity as the movie builds up.
An argument could be made that David’s disillusion about his daughter, such as it was, wasn’t something that was totally obscured. Many parents are aware of Facebook and Twitter, but there are other, newer platforms that many young people use that parents don’t know. If David knew about those platforms that Margot used regularly, then he wouldn’t have been disillusioned and could have prevented Margot’s disappearance for so long. Also, the way the movie wraps up, there’s no real reconciliation of what divided David and Margot.
Joseph Lee plays Peter Kim, the brother of David. His role is brief but powerful and there is a Paranormal Activity-like sequence where Lee gives a really good performance that is worth the price of admission.
Rated PG-13 for thematic content, language and some drug and sexual references.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 42 mins.