There was a lot to love about “Searching” and I was incredibly emotionally involved until almost the very end.
I have some notes about the very end, though.
WARNING: HERE BE SPOILERS.
I don’t have 5 points for this one, because it really was a very well made movie. I just have 2.
1. There was absolutely no reason for Debra Messing’s son to be…well, we don’t know what he is but it sounded like maybe he has Asperger’s? We’re told he hates scenes and people looking at him, he’s not like other kids, and “Do you know what prison would do to a boy like him?” Anyway whatever, he’s disabled and it’s gross. The “Disabled Boy/Man Accidentally Kills Pretty Girl” trope is disgusting and John Steinbeck should be fucking ashamed. YOU CANNOT BLAME DISABLED BOYS FOR TEEN BOYS MURDERING TEEN GIRLS, THEY DO IT ALL THE FUCKING TIME AND I WOULD ESTIMATE 99.999999% OF THEM DO NOT HAVE AUTISM. I have known many, many developmentally disabled teenage boys and none of them killed anyone. None of them would have had the slightest difficulty telling when they were hurting someone. None of them would have thought it was okay to climb into a stranger’s car. Ugh. WIthout these like, three lines of dialogue, it would have been exactly the same movie, but much much better.
Now, a word about endings before I move on to point 2.
Endings are, in my opinion, the most demanding part of a story. All through the story, you’re lining ’em up. And now, in the ending, you knock ’em down.
Unsurprisingly, it’s much easier to line things up than it is to knock them down. You may have great ideas for things to line up that you have no idea how to knock down. Furthermore, what you, the creator, think you are lining up, may be totally different than what your viewer believes you are lining up, or the viewer may have built up very specific desires about how you should knock them down that you can’t predict.
The other problem with the ending is that it happens…at the end. The audience remembers it, and it sets their mood when they put down the book or leave the theater. I will often feel better about a mostly mediocre movie with a great ending than a mostly great movie with a mediocre ending, because I leave the theater feeling let down. I love to leave a theater hyped up and giddy with emotional release, and when I pay for my ticket and don’t get that experience, I resent it.
Paradoxically, the more the audience loves the story, the more let down they will feel by a disappointing ending. They had such high hopes!
Another metaphor: I imagine emotional involvement in a story as submersion. I sink into a story and I’m carried along, unless something sends me gasping to the surface. It totally varies reader to reader, what kinds of things will make them surface. For some people a missing punctuation mark will do it. For another, it’s a sexist joke. For another, it’s a plot hole.
Once you surface, it takes time to sink back in.
So if something pops you out of the story RIGHT BEFORE THE END…well. It’s hard to recover.
I’m fairly tolerant of plot logic problems, to be honest. So maybe if it hadn’t been for that gross ableist moment RIGHT AT THE END OF THE MOVIE, I could have brushed off the stuff I’m about to discuss and still left the theater happy. But my intense emotional connection to the story faltered at the end of the movie, and it was already faltering before DM’s confession scene. And here’s why I think that was:
2. Both the plot resolution and the emotional resolution were rushed. Here are some shifts that happened too quickly for me to follow them emotionally and maintain suspension of disbelief:
- John Cho was able to get the police department to believe him that Debra Messing was a dirty cop in, like, a half-hour window, despite the fact that he had already gone viral with at least one false accusation. (And the fact that in general, cops protect cops.)
- Debra Messing’s confession felt too complete and sudden. If she went to such lengths to protect her son, why wouldn’t she also try to claim that SHE committed the murder?
- John Cho went from “maybe a failure as a father??” to “literally saving his daughter’s life against all odds” in five seconds. It felt like I was being hit over the head with “He’s a good father really!!! Maybe literally the BEST DAD EVER!”
- The reveal that Margot was alive…well, it was nice, actually. I was happy about it. But in combination with everything else, it felt like a deus ex machina.
- The epilogue was simply TOO idyllic to match the rest of the movie in tone.
I actually loved the complexity of Margot and David’s relationship. I loved that essentially it turned out that Margot was a good kid and they had a loving family. It was heartwarming. And even though it never felt like a foregone conclusion, I still had no trouble believing it when the time came. And honestly I’m a sucker for a parent-saves-child’s-life-with-the-power-of-love-when-the-professionals-have-failed plot.
But with ALL these 180-degree shifts in such a short time, so close to the end of the film, it felt like someone on the production had made a last-minute save for two of Hollywood’s most protected classes: cops and distant fathers.
“Hey now! One bad apple doesn’t spoil the bunch, and this poor guy was doing his best. You’d better show that all the OTHER cops are super competent and well-meaning! Then have the guy save his daughter and because she’s so grateful, they have a perfect relationship from now on!”
So, here are some ideas to adjust the emotional beats while keeping the essential HEA for the Kim family. Mix and match to create your preferred new ending:
- John Cho (and his brother?) find Margot on their own with the help of volunteer searchers.
- When found, Margot doesn’t remember what happened to her and they are never able to prove that Debra Messing had anything to do with it; the cops back her.
- John Cho and Margot together finish the investigation, pooling their information to piece together what happened and eventually get justice.
- Margot crawls out of the forest herself OR someone else finds her.
- Once Margot is rescued, Debra Messing tries to finish the cover-up by killing her for real this time. For example, she tries to stage a “drug bust gone wrong” at JC’s brother’s house, but she is caught on camera by JC’s spy-cam.
- Debra Messing takes full responsibility for the crime, and only after Margot is found does JC realize her son was involved.
- Debra Messing takes the fall, then her son confesses to save her.
- There is a murder, suicide, or murder/suicide in the Messing family. I honestly don’t love this conceptually but it would solve a lot of story problems.
- Never have John Cho accept that Margot is dead. This streamlines the plot and avoids the wild shift between “Margot is 100% definitely dead now you guys” and “Margot is totes alive!!!!” that draws attention to the man behind the curtain and triggers viewer skepticism. The key reveal isn’t the stock photo (which could EASILY have been dropped in and “explained away” by DM earlier, since plenty of people don’t use their real picture on social media). The key reveal is when JC recognizes that the ex-con in the “confession video” has a connection to DM. That could happen in a lot of ways, and you could easily keep the suspense going—is his suspicion of DM and belief in Margot’s survival justified, or spiraling paranoia+wishful thinking/denial?
- In the denouement, we see hints of the lingering impact of this traumatic experience—on Margot, on JC, and on their relationship—even though they are working through it and growing closer.
- John Cho and Margot are still arguing about the trash in the final scene—or, NOT arguing about the trash, in stilted way, because they are re-learning how to be together.
- John Cho still struggles to speak openly to Margot about his experience and about her Mom. Only through her own online search through news footage, etc., is she able to see for herself how much he cares about her, how important he was to the rescue effort, and how conflicted and vulnerable he is. Then, the film ends with her starting the conversation between them.
What do you think? Did the ending work for you?