Everything we see in Searching is from computer screens, web cams, phone screens and other internet and tech sources. That is the primary gimmick that director Aneesh Chaganty uses in Searching, a thoroughly modern thriller staring John Cho. Despite how irritating or limiting this may sound, the film manages to hook audiences emotionally and deliver a compelling, suspense-filled movie.
In the opening montage, we learn that David (Cho) has recently lost his wife. This leaves David the single dad to Margot (Michelle La). The family documents life milestones such as the first day of each school year, leaving a hard drive's worth of digital memories. The montage is mostly comprised of these memories and it establishes a strong emotional current early on that becomes the film's biggest asset.
One night Margot goes over to a friend's house for a study group and never returns. David misses two calls from her in the middle of the night and wakes up the next morning thinking she has already left for school. 37 hours later, she still hasn't shown up or responded to his many text messages. He calls it into the police and Detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing) is assigned to the case. Vick quickly enlists David to start going through her laptop to find anything that might help. As he searches, he soon realizes he did not know his daughter as well as he thought. He discovers a Venmo transaction for $2500 and quickly begins unravelling her secret life on the internet.
Although the film largely takes place on flat screens and pixilated interfaces, the film has a surprising scope in terms of locations. There is never the sense that all of this is playing out in a single location which helps keep the film from dragging. Chagnaty regularly employs humor and commentary on our digital lives as well. The film is brimming with creative ways to be emotional and suspense, even using buffering in a moment or two to ratchet up the tension.
There are a few missteps. Everyone in the film makes phone calls via Facetime and that hardly feels realistic. There are a few times when the gimmick feels gimmicky and it detracts from the otherwise thrilling mystery. Luckily the film packs enough twists in its final act to largely make these faults fade into the background.
Cho shined in last year's Columbus but Searching will hopefully give his career a big push into stardom. He spends most of the film acting alone, playing off videos, news reports, and text message screens. His performance is natural and compelling. He convinces you early of the love he has for his daughter and the complex nature of their relationship since his wife passed. Cho sells the growing panic of David as the clock ticks and the likelihood of finding Margot alive dwindles.
Searching mostly rises above the computer screen technique it uses. I do wish the film had a clearly commentary on screen life and the impact technology has on our lives. The film is a fun ride though and packs enough suspense and surprise to keep you hooked for the entire runtime.