Hollywood has made a number of thrillers that have been set on the computer screen in the past decade, including superior entries like 2014’s “Open Windows” and this past spring’s “Unfriended: Dark Web.” It’s no longer novel to tell a tale through the gimmick of desktop windows and its emails, social media posts, and streaming video. The filmmakers behind the new missing person thriller “Searching” clearly realize that and that’s why they’ve ensured that their story is what makes this one so special. Their film is not only a clever mystery filled with rich characters, but it packs an emotional wallop like few others in the genre due to its harrowing story of a father desperately trying to find his missing daughter.
That’s not to say that director Aneesh Chaganty and his fellow screenwriter Sev Ohanian haven’t maximized the techniques involved to recreate those open computer windows and all their moving parts. They have, and their expertise at recreating the modern web is something to behold. But that’s literally and figuratively, just a platform. It’s the exceptional mystery laid out that enthralls, similar to the old school tone and plotting in classics like “Laura” or “Rear Window.” Chaganty and Ohanian’s script peels away the mystery, layer by layer, almost as if it’s an Agatha Christie mystery. And like her prose, this mystery plays completely fair with theaudience by revealing all we need to solve it via the many clues in plain sight.
In fact, distraught father David Kim (John Cho) plays the same armchair detective that we assume throughout. And from the moment he discovers that his 16-year-old daughter Margot (Michelle La) has failed to return home after a night out at a friend’s, he’s less father and more intrepid sleuth.
Soon, David is cataloguing all of her movements online, discovering more and more of her digital footprint via her secret social media history. Dad hacks into her accounts, discovers cryptic emails, various profiles of school acquaintances, and even secret money deposits made in her name. We’re practically the Watson to his Holmes, or Colonel Hastings to his Poirot, as we watch all David discovers and preserves on his laptop as evidence.
The irony of the story is that despite the platform of the web allowing David to connect so fully with his daughter’s history, it proves that he didn’t adequately connect with her in real life. He mourns that fact as he comes across her many secrets and deceits, including quitting pianolessons months ago, transferring funds to unknown online friends, and brushing up against possible drug dealers. The real mystery here is Margot herself. Her disappearance is merely part of it.
It’s a shocking turn, given that the first 10 minutes of the film chronicled an ideal nuclear family unit. The backstory of the Kim’s paints a loving and close-knit portrait. From her birth, dad David and mom Pamela (Sara Sohn) doted on Margot. They lived a joyous life filled with birthday celebrations, piano recitals, and vacations together. Mom’s eventual cancer and tragic death from lymphoma destroyed that happiness and led to her survivors grieving and growing apart.
Additionally, these sequences also drop of number of clues that will become key to the disappearance of the girl. Like Christie’s books, key moments are establishing in the earliest of moments and a watchful gumshoe will be wise to watch very closely as they will figure prominently later in the game. Even some of the modern-day exposition is chock full of details that will help solve the mystery, beginning with David’s gently scolding of his daughter on FaceTime for failing to take out the garbage, not to mention her eagerness to get off the phone and attend to her study group.
A lot is thrown at him, and us, as the dad discovers more and more online while trying to solve his daughter’s disappearance. Soon, David will find out that Margot made two desperate cellphone calls to him while he slept the night of her disappearance. He will also uncover lies about her study group, as well as her friendships. He even hacks into her secret files and unearths a long history of questionable chat room discussions with secret friends. Throughout, Cho does a wonderful job conveying both the exhilaration and pain of pulling back the curtain on his daughter’s private life.
When the forlorn father realizes he needs professionals to help with his investigation, he teams up with ultra-serious Detective Vick (Debra Messing, cast against type). She’s as intense as he is and soon the two are discovering more and more information gathered from surveillance videos, online banking records, etc. Action is always character, and we find out a lot about David, Margot and Vick through their movements. Troubled teen Margot lied to most everyone, left and right. David’s obsessiveness is driven by his guilt over his parental failures. And Vick is a working mother who dives into the search for Margot as if she was trying to protect her own child.
To tell anymore about what happens would ruin the eyebrow-raising twists and turns that dot this rollicking entertainment. Suffice it to say that “Searching” is a thinking man’s thriller, one that demands the audience’s avid attention every second of the way. It’s also a technical marvel in its recreation of all the internet accoutrement, from chat room graphics to grainy traffic videos to LA newscasts’ bright, shiny people. And despite the timeliness of opening amidst the revelations of murdered teen Mollie Tibbitts, this film is far from depressing like that horrific news. “Searching” is a crackling yarn, earnestly acted, and presented in a manner that transcends novelty. It’s a deft, one hour and 42 minutes at the Cineplex that will have you on the edge of your seat until its last provocative and emotional moment.
Catch the trailer to Searching below: