“SEARCHING”— 3 stars — John Cho, Debra Messing, Joseph Lee, Michelle La; PG-13 (for thematic content, some drug and sexual references, and for language); in general release
Just how much of our lives is available for anyone to view online? According to director Aneesh Chaganty’s new film “Searching," an engaging and unique thriller with just enough strengths to offset its flaws, quite a bit.
David Kim (John Cho) is a single father struggling to raise his teenage daughter Margot (Michelle La) two years after her mother Pamela (Sara Sohn) died from cancer. One night following a late study group, Margot never comes home. David tries to find clues of her whereabouts through his daughter’s laptop, slowly reconstructing not only the story of her disappearance, but also the details of her life that he realizes he’s only marginally aware of.
The premise isn’t all that original, but “Searching’s” perspective is. Chaganty tells the film's entire 102-minute story through a series of computer screens, from David’s point of view — the family desktop, Margot’s laptop and David’s phone. (A 2015 episode of “Modern Family” used a similar technique.)
The POV is established right away, as “Searching” opens with a montage backstory that shows video clips and still images of David and his family stored on the family computer that document the years before Pamela’s death. We see Margot start her first piano lessons and go through grade school, and eventually pass through the sad circumstances of her mother’s illness and passing.
The story kicks into gear when David sleeps through an 11 p.m. call from Margot the night she’s supposed to be at a biology study group. The next morning David assumes she’s left early for school and only gradually picks up on the idea that something is wrong after noting she’s left her laptop at home.
There’s a thin line between unique and gimmick, but Chaganty handles his execution in a way that makes “Searching” immensely engaging. Rather than come off like a cute time capsule of 2018-era technology, “Searching” instead becomes a fascinating journey into just how much of our lives is accessible through our online activity.
Over the course of the film, David searches through a variety of applications, websites and social media accounts to discover, among other things, that Margot long ago quit her piano lessons and has been making suspicious financial transfers. He eventually enlists the help of a local detective (Debra Messing), and even his brother Peter (Joseph Lee) comes under suspicion.
Chaganty reveals the twists and turns of his plot in expert fashion — his creative use of Facetime video and other news clips integrates more traditional footage into the film to keep audiences comfortable. This also allows Cho and Messing more room for their performances, which might otherwise be confined to simple voiceovers.Comment on this story
As the story builds to a head, the technique gets complicated to maintain and Chaganty’s plot does a few questionable loop-de-loops in the third act that strain believability. But where those kinds of flaws might upend a different film, “Searching” is just good enough to get you to cheer for it and forgive a few minor missteps.
“Searching” will definitely serve as a portrait of our present-day technological world. But instead of a simple show-and-tell, Chaganty’s film goes beyond the cute and explores the sobering depths of how our technology can be both our doom and our deliverance.
"Searching" is rated PG-13 for thematic content, some drug and sexual references, and for language; running time: 102 minutes.