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Asterlight/Sundance Institute

Searchers (2021)

It’s such a good idea that you can’t believe no one thought of it before. People face the camera, looking at dating profiles on the app of their choice, and discuss them with the film crew who controls the scroll, a friend over their shoulder, or both. If messages are dictated, the crew type them and up and send them; if messages are received, they are analyzed together. The pandemic is apparent – “Searchers” was shot last summer in New York City, and the interviews are intercut with street scenes of P.D.A. by people wearing masks – but also not the point, since dating is impossible no matter where or when you are.

That point is made by the singletons director Pacho Velez features, who range in age from 19 to 88 and are a cross-section of New Yorkers in all their ethnic and sexual variety. After one subject is hilariously interrupted by his off-screen mother – who retorts, “Well excuse me, I was only in labor with you for a day” before stomping off down the hall – Mr. Velez has the grace to include his own mother in his search. (She clearly loves her son enough not to comment on his age settings being mostly for women a full decade younger than him, although some interviewees do, pleasingly, call this out.) The singletons discuss their own profiles, their attempts at meeting people, whether you should “invest” in a drink instead of just a cup of coffee, and report on some of their best and worst experiences. One young man even shows off his spreadsheet of women, in a data-driven scalable approach to track trends and save time in finding the one.

It’s all very relatable and heartwarming, right up until we meet the two youngest participants in the film, who are also the only two not to use their own names. That is because these young women are sugarbabies, looking for dates on a pay-per-meet basis, for which they agree $400 per week is reasonable. (All the more so because the C.E.O. of the site they are using was once quoted as referring to love as “a concept invented by poor people.”)

This casual conflation of online dating and online sex work (even sex work in its mildest form) spoils the points “Searchers” wants to make: Finding love is hard at every age, the apps help up to a point but physical chemistry between people trumps all, and the pressures of life in New York make it harder than average. But since the sugarbabies are there, all quest for love has been reduced to just another online shopping cart, getting as much as you can for as little expense as possible. It’s not only in New York where money changes everything, but it’s perhaps only in New York where the ability to buy that happiness is seen as equivalent to, maybe even better than, the real thing. At least by the men. An entire documentary could be made in analyzing that decision. Or you could just swipe past.


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