If there’s one all-too noticeable thread running through this year’s Sundance slate, it’s the presence of an unofficial COVID-themed lineup set apart by their incidental, and intentional in some cases, alignments of setting, scope, and content. An obvious outcome, perhaps, but more pressingly a sign of standards to come, given the continued dissipation of anything resembling shock or confusion toward developments in our increasingly surreal and fractious current climate, and with it the need to edge real-world trauma into the more pliable realm of fiction. It also necessitates some kind of foil, so there’ll always be demand for a film like Searchers (produced during the pandemic), whose mixture of youthful swing and preciousness seems almost calibrated to the fancies of an indie crowd jostling to see their proxy representations on-screen, while everyone else basks in its simple charms.
Pacho Velez’s latest trades the experiential angle of his Sensory Ethnography Lab fare for a more street-level perch, claiming the human face, in its many manifestations, as a site of study. As if gazing into a mirror, we take in the countenances of interviewees, by turns expectant and forlorn, as they cruise the highways and byways of the online dating scene looking for love. The subjects chosen differ almost invariably in age, race, gender, and sexual orientation, with city-dwelling viewers almost certain to find an analog (or discomfiting reflection) in one or two of these folks. And whether we’re pointed to maverick documentarian Caveh Zahedi, 74-year old Cathleen, or a young woman negotiating allowance rates with a would-be sugar daddy, their insights into the multifarious utilities of dating apps are articulated engagingly. Pacho even turns the camera on himself on a number of occasions, and his endearing mannerisms render these sequences highlights in their own right.
Still, charisma only goes so far; without a more thought-provoking or interesting thesis beyond ogling a group of oglers, hearing about their romantic encounters and nominally transcribed fallings-out, livened by stray shots of post-pandemic New York, Searchers never pushes past low-key noodling. While such an optimistic view of the hidden potentialities and vibrant personalities nestled within the often blustery world of online dating is refreshing, one can’t help but look to scraps that hint at a more nuanced discourse on the rampant opportunism and predation it has abetted. Zeke, 32, relates a sexual assault at the hands of a Grindr date, and later on, we enter the abode of 29-year old EJ, a galaxy-brained pickup artist who keeps a listing of his previous partners’ details in order to narrow down future companions by background. There’s also a cute visual jab at the absurdity of being able to match with someone, possibly even a soulmate, through icebreaking prompts and superficial similarities in taste. Beyond this, though, any closer scrutiny of the very ordained nature of matchmaking and the disorientation felt when expectations collide with physical reality, and its infinite faults, is shunted off. For all the images of first-discovery summoned by its title, Searchers feels divorced from the visceral and profoundly unflattering, pacing around a framework of second-hand recital.
Published as part of Sundance Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 5.