The lengthiest interview in “Searchers” takes place toward the conclusion of director Pacho Velez’s warm and well-executed Sundance doc, which focuses on an array of New Yorkers and the dating apps they use.
Earlier, when the film introduces 55-year-old Ron, he’s offering a running commentary while scrolling through profiles with little pause: “He looks like Freddie Mercury of Queen. No, thank you,” he says of one. “Pass. Pass. Pass,“ he continues, zipping through profiles. “I’m never going to find anybody.”
Now, here he is recounting at the director’s behest his best online date, and it’s a more sweet than bitter bit of business. The story may not eliminate his sense that he’ll never find that special someone, but it does at least suggest that it’s possible. “Seek so that ye might find” could be the takeaway; that or, you gotta be in it to win it. And here, winning comes in a variety of connections.
“Searchers” opens with a closeup of a handsome young man by the name of Shaq Shaq seemingly smiling into the camera. A friend sits behind him, looking over his shoulder. It becomes clear, Shaq Shaq’s staring at dating profiles — on Tinder.
For two-thirds of the film, Velez and cinematographers Daniel Claridge and Martin DiCicco rely on a camera setup (and animation trickery) that positions its subjects staring directly at the camera while also perusing online profiles. For filmgoers, it’s a bit like spying through a two-way mirror — or as, the director has said, like peering through “the looking-glass.” Closeups are one of cinema’s best intimacy hacks, and seeing these people stare at a screen and ruminate about the profiles they’re scrolling past or swiping right on yields a quick, surprisingly non-judgy connection.
Many of the interviewees are sociologically attuned. Cathleen, 74, explains the various ways men signal they’re interested in sex. “They almost never use the word ‘sex,’” she observes. Twenty-something friends Olivia and Austin lay on a bed, riffing on Grindr’s pithy prompt “Into?” “It’s my least favorite question on the app,” says Austin, who parries with his standard “Very open-minded. You?”
With a light touch and a trusting chemistry with his talking heads, Velez reminds us that online dating often exacerbates the tensions between emotional authenticity and self-marketing, between how you appear and how you want to appear. While dating apps have been around for a spell — so many sites, so many kinds of users — “Searchers” delivers a sort of clear-eyed valentine to the endeavor.
A couple of times, Velez and editor Hannah Buck juxtapose interviews in a way that illuminates, amuses or perhaps confirms a concern. We watch Sailor, 20, and Rose, 19, engage an app that introduces “sugar babies” and “sugar daddies.” Not that the film makes a point of that. Instead we figure it out as Sailor trades texts with a 35-year-old professional, trying to size him up, calculate any risk and negotiate a $400 weekly “allowance.” It feels a little like the opening salvo of an “SVU” episode. The filmmakers follow that with Zeke, 33, explaining that he’s gotten deft at decoding a guy’s Instagram because he’d been sexually assaulted by a man he met on Grindr. He takes care to defend the app even as he says it gave him “a fake sense of security.”
A less worrisome, humorous one-two cut comes when the doc leaves a slightly nervous, middle-aged guy, who appears to live with his mom (and would prefer to keep his online dating from her) to a gent who perhaps over-shares with his mother: the director himself. Velez, 40, sits with Marion, 70, perusing profiles. His app of choice: OKCupid.
From time to time, “Searchers” breaks up the sweet march of interviews with crisp and beckoning shots of New York City. The filming took place this past summer after the city’s first crushing wave of Covid-19; its (mostly) masked denizens out in the world doing their thing. In these interludes, the doc itself seems to gaze fondly — perhaps even a little enviously — upon couples hand-holding, kissing, even posing for wedding photos.
Because the hankering for another (be it a booty call, soulmate, or the vast in-between) can be all-inclusive work, the searchers here come in all stripes: young, older, black, brown, white, LGBTQ.
What’s that old ad come-on? “I’m not only the president, I’m also a client.” Yes, part of the reason the film works so gently is because Velez reveals his own pining. This doesn’t feel like a clever device so much as a way of tossing a participant-observer gesture on its keister. Velez takes a chance at seeming foolish, vulnerable, or desperate. By the way, no one in “Searchers” seems the latter. Most often, they seem aware, witty, tender. No not that spelling, the real deal.