Three generations gathering for a boozy Thanksgiving are forced to talk to each other when all of their cell phones lose reception. Their conversations about the hyperconnected state of society and what they’ve lost in the bargain grow increasingly intimate over the course of the holiday.
It’s Thanksgiving and family and friends have gathered to celebrate togetherness and gratitude. But all hell breaks loose when the cell reception mysteriously goes dead throughout the neighbourhood. Each person must deal with their own crisis with marriages being tested, values questioned and everyone’s future suddenly in doubt all due to a simple technology breakdown!
Film Review: Search Engines
The topic is social media and its discontents as friends and family gather for a SoCal Thanksgiving in a comedy starring Joely Fisher and Connie Stevens.
Aiming to satirize the ways that smartphone addiction has transformed and infected our social lives, writer-director Russell Brown comes up with a few well-considered insights but finally has nothing particularly fresh to say about the matter. Among the ensemble he’s gathered for Search Engines, his comic slant on a California Thanksgiving, most serve as mouthpieces for various sides of the topic, rather than fully fleshed characters.
The promising energy of the early scenes, with its sharp banter and the insinuating camera moves of DP Christopher Gosch, gives way to an increasingly flat, repetitive and barely dramatized argument. The film might find better reception on devices than in theaters, its chief novelty being the onscreen pairing of real-life mother and daughter Connie Stevens and Joely Fisher.
Fisher plays newly divorced art journalist Judy, a non-cook who’s intent on preparing her first traditional Thanksgiving feast, working from recipes bookmarked on her phone. The sudden loss of cell reception in her suburban neighborhood throws a wrench into the meal preparation (does no one have a laptop?), and throws most of her guests into a tizzy.
More convincing than the intended comic turmoil is the chemistry among Fisher, Daphne Zuniga and Rick Slavin (his jittery performance is the film’s only affecting one) as siblings. Stevens provides an earnest sweetness as their GPS-challenged mom, while Judy’s daughters (Grace Folsom, Nicole Cummins) wisely stay out of the fray, turning to such antediluvian amusements as books and board games.
Rather than enriching the would-be satire, the collection of holiday guests increasingly feels like narrative clutter. Some are obvious emblems, others are just there. In different ways, smartphones embody far deeper problems between two conspicuously unhappy married couples: Michael Muhney plays a sexually dishonest husband, and Michelle Hurd is another man’s self-involved wife, who derives validation from her constant online reviewing. It’s no surprise when their digitally cast-off partners (Natasha Gregson Wagner, Barry Watson) bond over analog appreciation — or what another character dismissively calls “nostalgia for inconvenience.”
Had Brown (Race You to the Bottom, The Blue Tooth Virgin) found a way to ingrain his ideas in the various relationships rather than spelling them out, the movie might have found a compelling groove. Instead he attempts to tie together the various strands through the character Shane (Nick Court), a sort of performance blogger; location-based group happenings are his specialty. With Judy’s blessing, the Brit sets about interviewing the others about this most American of holidays, but mainly about their increasingly apparent dependence on web-connected devices.
Court brings a welcome weirdness and mystery to the role. That he turns out to be something of a villain — a crafty manipulator, anyway — is far less satisfying than intended, the air having been let out of the story long before.
The movie’s final, striking image suggests that Brown was reaching for something far more charged and unsettling than what unfolds onscreen. He captures a specific SoCal setting persuasively, but he struggles to turn it into a world where reading Madame Bovary or playing Boggle can feel truly subversive.
Directed by: Russell Brown
Starring: Joely Fisher, Natasha Gregson Wagner, Grace Folsom, Nicole Cummins, Michael Muhney, Ayumi Iizuka, Daphne Zuniga, Michelle Hurd, Brooklyn-Bella, Connie Stevens
Screenplay by: Russell Brown
Production Design by: Leah Mann
Cinematography by: Christopher Gosch
Film Editing by: Christopher Munch
Costume Design by: Kristen Anacker
Music by: Ryan Beveridge
Studio: Indican Films
Release Date: October 14, 2016