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Sundance 2021 Review: Searchers – “Everyone is searching for something”

A still from Searchers by Pacho Velez, an official selection of the NEXT section at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute | photo by Asterlight.

Ok, I’ll admit it, more than once I’ve spent an evening having an enjoyable time swiping right and left through a dating app with a friend.  In fact, this even plays in another Sundance film this year, CODA, where family time included looking through profiles on Tinder.  But one of the reasons it’s so enjoyable for me is I have no skin in the game, I’m not the one who has to follow through, I’m not the one searching.  Dating is hard and finding a special person to spend time with even more of a challenge.  In the end, everyone is searching for something, and director Pacho Velez aims to capture this process in his documentary, Searchers.

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He starts by asking each of his New York City subjects, “What are you looking for?”  And the answers are decidedly different.  Some subjects are only looking for a ‘good time’, others a life partner, others still a sugar daddy.  Velez, also a singleton, even ends up asking himself this question, signing up for a dating app over the course of the film.  This question is also posed to a wide variety of people – different ages, races, genders and sexual preferences.  Once asked, we view their online musings like looking through a window – texts show up on screen, dating profiles fly by (blurry to protect the innocent – you never quite get to see who they’re looking at) all while really focusing, close up, on the ‘searchers’ themselves.

There are a few issues with this process though that can make Searchers a difficult watch. The main one being that this film is only able to be as interesting as its subjects and many are much more charismatic than others.  There is a wonderfully vibrant octogenarian who talks about nabbing herself a younger man that makes me only yearn to age as gracefully.  There’s one woman who goes on to describe all the ways men try to say they want to have sex in their dating profiles (as a side note she wasn’t criticizing this practice, just explaining the need to decipher).  But there are also times when, for what seems like an eternity, someone might just be saying, “Pass. Pass. Pass,” with no elaboration as they scroll through options.  These moments can be painful to sit through, and no more fun than watching someone agonize over the wording of their dating profile.

Director Velez keeps the documentary short, just over 80 minutes, which is just as well as there doesn’t seem to be an overarching thesis or question he’s trying to answer.  There are a few touching moments, one man recounts and grieves over love lost, one talks about being assaulted by someone they found on an app.  But we get such brief introductions to these subjects that there’s barely time to know what they’re searching for, let alone be invested.

As Velez travels around a pandemic laden New York City amongst the mask-wearing public he still finds shots of couples in love, taking selfies along the Brooklyn Bridge, getting married outside in small ceremonies, holding hands while walking down the street.  It seems as though for some the search was worth it, but whether it is for the subjects of Searchers we never know.  It’s not that we don’t care about the human connection they’re yearning for, it’s just that there is no direction here to help us get there.  For me, Searchers indeed left me searching, mostly for the point.

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