Sundance 2021 Film Review: Searchers ★★★

Filmmaker Pacho Velez, who made 2017’s exceptional archive footage doc The Reagan Show, turns his camera on himself and a diverse cross-section of his fellow New Yorkers looking for dates online in Searchers. The film’s effective visual conceit places us as viewers behind the screens that the subjects are looking at, as if we’re curious sociologists observing them from behind a two-way mirror. Among the film’s LGBTQ+ participants we meet Austin who’s navigating a potential Grindr hookup. He tells his friend that his least favourite frequently asked question on the app is ‘into?’, but he has his standard reply at the ready. 40 year-old Velez, who is questioning the age window that he’s set for the women he’s hoping to meet on Tinder (28 to 42), sits with his mother as they discusses the potential downsides of dating online. She thinks it opens up users to frequent rejection and suggests it might be time for her son to hire a matchmaker instead. Two straight friends have got different takes on using; Arthur (78) remains open and optimistic, whereas Robert (75) takes a more cynical approach and comments how dating sites create the impression that there’s an endless pool of possibilities which discourages its users from committing, so he’s developed criteria to help streamline the process and will only meet for coffee on first dates to save time and money.

As we meet more New Yorkers, 32 year-old Zeke recounts being sexually assaulted by a man he met up with after chatting to him on Grindr, though he doesn’t blame the app itself he recognises the “fake sense of security” it gives him and the stories that build in his mind about men he’s only been in contact with for a few minutes. 22 year-old polyamorous Caroline met both her current romantic partners on apps, and shares that her experience of looking for folks online is to single out those who are “out of the ordinary” or those who are “unusual to a fault” (you can tell by their eyes). She shares that she was won over by one of her partners listing “debilitating ADHD” as their “sexiest trait” on their profile. 88 year-old Helene has been chatting to a 52 year-old man online. Her daughter worries that he might be a bit young for her mother, but she says her reply to her was “he may be too young for you, but not for me!” She ruled out anyone over 60, and says she’d “rather stay home and look at the good faces on TV’ than date an old man. After many dates, 29 year-old straight guy EJ has developed a detailed spreadsheet to keep track of them, hoping to spot some trends to help him narrow down his search. Not everyone is looking for just love or sex , 20 year-old little_sailor and her 19 year-old friend Rose321 are logged on to Seeking Arrangement hoping to connect with wealthy men to pay them a regular allowance in return for dates.

Cathleen searching for a partner. As seen in Searchers, directed by Pacho Velez. Image courtesy of Asterlight.
Rachel setting up her Hinge profile with a friend. As seen in Searchers, directed by Pacho Velez. Im age courtesy of Asterlight.

As the film progresses what emerges is an expansive and rather mesmeric meditation on contemporary dating. The lens remains non-judgemental of its subjects and although there’s plenty of humour its never at their expense. One of the subjects comments on the pandemic giving her a chance to stay home and enjoy her NYC apartment (a rarity for her under usual circumstances in the city), but aside from that there’s little acknowledgment of how Covid might be impacting online dating, something that might have made for some interesting insights. Although I live in the city myself, it’s nevertheless striking to see Manhattan in the midst of the health crisis (the film was shot last summer) and rather than highlight the trauma of that time, the camera lingers on New Yorkers engrossed by their cellphones and in a beautiful sequence we see couples, including some newly weds, finding intimate moments of romance, while buskers fill the air with music. The film is at its best, and reminiscent of the brilliant 1977 doc Word Is Out: Stories of Some of Our Lives, when it leaves its subjects to tell their own stories. It’s a rather slow paced but thorough exploration of the expectations and realities of contemporary dating through the eyes of those who haven’t given up hope of searching, or are still trying to decipher exactly what they’re looking for. One of the film’s most touching moments comes as Jon, a gay man in his mid 50s, recounts a romantic first date with a guy he met online; the relationship may not have lasted forever, but he remembers the man and their first night together kissing in a straight Irish bar fondly. Its a memory that some how seems to make all that searching worthwhile.

By James Kleinmann

Searchers had its world premiere in the NEXT section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival on Saturday January 30th.

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