Searching is a suspenseful and terrifying tale about the dangers of the digital era. It will rightly send shivers down the spine of every parent worried, or ignorant of their children's online activities. The entire film is told through the perspective of computers, mobile devices, and social media websites. Searching does not use this narrative tool as a gimmick. We've seen dreadful horror films employ similar formats with lackluster results. Searching is not of this foolish ilk. Searching is an incisive journey into a realm where innocents are lured unwittingly into dire circumstances.
John Cho stars as David Kim, an average father from the San Jose suburbs . He facetimes his teenage daughter, Margot (Michelle La), about forgetting to take out the trash. Margot is apologetic, but she's studying late at a friend's house. She'll take care of her chores later. David goes to bed early. The next morning the garbage is still in the kitchen. Margot did not come home. Margot was not in school.
Margot is missing. David is overcome with panic. He doesn't really know any of her friends. Even though David saw Margot every day, her actual activities are a complete mystery. The police detective in charge (Debra Messing) instructs David to go through Margot's laptop for clues to her whereabouts. The revelations within are shocking. Margot had online interactions with strangers. Even more distressing, Margot was seemingly involved in some kind of conspiracy. David must wade through the murky waters of Margot's social media presence and private computer files. What he discovers is a parent's worst nightmare come true.
Director/writer Aneesh Chaganty uses modern filmmaking techniques to tell a classic story. The clever editing and use of digital media never overtakes the heart of the mystery. What happened to Margot? Who was involved in her disappearance? Chaganty's script with co-writer Sev Ohanian accomplishes several goals at once. We're constantly pressed forward with reveals, while David delves deeper into the morass of the internet. Searching weaves a good, old-fashioned whodunit into a thoroughly modern parable. The audience learns, as David does, how easily someone can be manipulated online. Chaganty is very impressive in his feature film debut.
I normally find the use of cell phone cameras tedious. Case in point, Steven Soderbergh's iPhone film, Unsane; a great lead performance and mediocre plot was bungled by low tech artistry. Searching does not suffer the same fate. It delivers a cinematic experience, even though the camera work is done through cell phones and webcams. Searching begins with Margot as an infant, so we start with early 2000's Windows OS technology. By the time we reach present day, everything looks as crisp and clear as today's sharpest smartphones. Chaganty deserves another feather in his cap for pulling off this slick visual feat.
Searching does not succeed without John Cho's gripping performance. He is front and center throughout. Cho runs the gamut of human emotions. What starts as mild annoyance with a lazy daughter turns to full blown anxiety in short order. He becomes an emotional wreck as the reality of Margot's situation sinks in. David is forced to deal with the vicious trolls and anonymous abusers that infest social media like cockroaches. Their invective is unavoidable as he continues his search for Margot. Once again the dark underbelly of the internet comes out to play. It is a stark reminder how online bullying and harassment is so hurtful in real life.
One aspect of Searching is glossed over. While the film is forthright about the use of computer forensics, it misses one huge component of missing persons searches. Cell phones continuously ping towers. This is a primary and highly effective tool of law enforcement. Searching never mentions this technology, because it wraps up the plot too easily. You have to suspend disbelief somewhere, it might as well be for geolocation.
Searching is a good suspense thriller, pertinent to the times. Its plot is not that fantastic. Predators, cyberbullying, and online stalking are daily news stories. From Sony Pictures, Searching should be required viewing for parents. The internet is a dangerous place for unsupervised children.