Of the filmmakers to find opportunity during the pandemic, Pacho Velez will be a tough act to follow in the inevitable surge, locating a fascinating parallel in “Searchers” between scenes of New York with people wearing masks on the streets and the apartments above where the feeling of being alone has surely intensified, making the quest for companionship online, either as briefly as a casual hookup on Tinder or a long-term relationship on match.com, a quixotic folly or a window to the outside world they can’t no longer participate in fully. (Or quite likely both.) At first, this would seem to be a bit of a departure for the filmmaker who usually operates at a remove from his subjects, asking audiences to look a little deeper into the frame, previously setting up the camera with co-director Stephanie Spray to ride up and down an incline with those seeking enlightenment in the heights of Nepal in “Manakamana,” teaming up with Sierra Pettengill on “The Reagan Show” to reevaluate the Cold War through media coverage at the time, or pulling together pieces of the Berlin Wall after it had been dismantled in “The American Sector” with Courtney Stephens to see how far history can travel.
This invitation Velez always extends to a greater degree than most takes a different form in “Searchers,” where the director not only can be seen setting up his own online profile after suffering some relationship disappointments, but the act of watching one lonely heart after another deciding who to swipe right on can be as addictive as if it were your finger pressed against the glass of a smartphone. Working off a clever tech conceit every bit as canny as Errol Morris’ interrotron, “Searchers” gives off the vague impression of what those in front of the camera are seeing, a blurry outline that viewers can impose their own thoughts on in a similar way as those who can see the image clearly yet have only the details of someone’s profile to fill in the rest for themselves if they might be a good match. Of course, you can’t ever presume to know those on the other side, but the often arbitrary selection process of those in front of the camera will seem all too familiar as people can suddenly start imagining a future with a neurosurgeon when it hadn’t ever crossed their mind before or wondering what a certain kind of smile suggests in their profile picture.
Regardless of the broad swath of age, race and sexual orientation that “Searchers” cuts across, whatever everyone is looking for is somehow both different and the same, frustrated with the tools for communication, no matter how advanced they are, to actually express what they want and who they are, making it all the more unlikely they’ll find a compatible partner. While the film’s relatability is what makes it so wildly entertaining, one of its most intriguing threads is a result of its specific urban setting when after exploring all the things its subjects won’t tolerate in a partner, there’s a consideration of what they’re willing to accept residing in New York when the cost of living compounds the pressure of using time most efficiently in every relationship they have. Reframing a conversation around courtship in terms of the investment that’s willing to be made between two people rather than what bonds they share proves to be illuminating, documenting a cultural shift where love isn’t necessarily something worth making sacrifices for, and while you see people deciding what’s worth their time frequently in “Searchers,” the film itself is very much worth yours.