Sundance 2021 ‘Searchers’ Review: Love Through the Looking-Glass (or Phone Screen)

Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

“What are you looking for?”

The voice of documentary filmmaker Pacho Velez is audible as he asks his subjects, who talk right into the camera, about what they are looking for in a romantic or sexual partner. Searchers is a mostly sweet, sometimes bitter look at the world of dating apps, as all these New Yorkers search for something amongst the swirling masses.

While the subjects all have age and geographical limits for their potential partners — some have admittedly arbitrary bounds, though others laugh about how they have practically no requirements — they span the spectrum of sexuality, and use a wide variety of apps, from Tinder to Grindr to Hinge to OkCupid to Seeking Arrangement. We get Cathleen, 74, talking about what men want, while 20-something Olivia and Austin mock cryptic Grindr messages and Sailor, 20, and Rose, 19, determine what the going rate is for a sugar baby. They and tens of other New Yorkers are all looking for different things, but in some of the same places. The filmmakers show the interviewees’ dating profiles, and ask them to say whether they would swipe right or left; all the while, social media accounts, browsers and dating apps are overlaid over the subjects’ faces on the screen. This gives the effect of watching them through a two-way mirror, or “digital looking-glass” as the filmmaker calls it, as they peruse profiles or wonder how to respond to DMs. The close ups and trusting rapport Velez has with his subjects lend a sense of intimacy and authenticity, even as we are always called to question that delicate balance between both vulnerability and self-promotion that online dating fosters.

Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

The documentary setup is relatively simple, but the way the filmmakers get in the middle of these interactions, mediating responses, adds a sense of poignancy and humor as the people in front of and behind the camera laugh together, and attempt to decode the hidden meaning behind messages and profiles. Velez further inserts himself into the narrative when he gets on camera to talk about his own quest for love, which further establishes him as a trustworthy presence willing to subject himself to the same scrutiny of his personal life and interests. He is a filmmaker and film professor looking to go on dates with a “nice woman,” he says, and talks openly about his own grappling with a sense of aging, turning 40, and trying to find a romantic partner. His mother weighs in, too, about his lack of romantic success, and the talking-head interviews take on a further level of intimacy – unfiltered personality in a hyper-filtered digital landscape.

The B-roll takes us through New York and love in the time of corona; the presence of masks lets us know that this was at least partially filmed during pandemic times, and the search for companionship and dire need for human connection feel more pressing than ever. Nothing major happens, and there is little follow-through on the online interactions or follow-up on whether any of the connections have been lasting. The film’s one weakness, though is that as much as he takes part in this universal quest for connection, Velez resorts to a somewhat cynical approach to online dating. Bemoaning the difficulties of dating online or on apps, and how things are “different these days,” feels like a reductive take, and occasionally he can have a rather bleak outlook on the chance of finding fulfillment via apps. Velez freely admits that it’s hard to not go into the online dating realm feeling like it’s “doomed for failure,” and it seems like that doom might be a somewhat self-fulfilling prophecy.

Despite the filmmaker’s strong dose of cynicism, he also retains hope, and allows for tender moments when he asks people about their best online dating experiences. What we get from the assortment of encounters Velez gathers together onscreen is a series of sometimes awkward, sometimes sweet, sometimes downright weird experiences of trying to find sexual and romantic fullment, forming a candid portrait of dating in contemporary New York. As we stare at the subjects’ faces with only the ghostly projection of their app screens, the focus remains on them, and what they think on feel; it’s not about what they find, but about the search.

Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

The documentary may leave some a little unsatisfied, as it does not attempt to unpack what makes for long-lasting love and what people are even looking for online. Velez may struggle with finding the “one,” but he has great instincts when it comes to choosing his subjects; half the time, it is not quite clear what he or his subjects are looking for, but somehow it all works. It may remain a little surface-level on unravelling the mystery of love, but it’s also charming and gently thought-provoking, asking viewers to look within themselves when they look online.

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