MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Searching’ more than a narrative gimmick

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The engrossing thriller “Searching” takes place entirely on the computer and phone screens of its main character, David, played by John Cho. That’s an especially challenging gimmick for any thriller to sustain for more than a few minutes, but with some clever editing and a few dynamite performances, “Searching” transcends the trick.

Directed and co-written by Aneesh Chaganty (his feature film debut, after some influential work at Google), “Searching” can most easily be compared to the computer screen-set horror hit, “Unfriended.” Where “Unfriended” focused mostly on jolts, Chaganty frames “Searching” as a family drama, then builds suspense by endangering those central relationships.

The movie opens with a sharply-tuned montage of videos and images spanning years of the relationship between David and his teenage daughter, Margot (Michelle La). It’s effective shorthand for anchoring the story that takes place in the present day: When Margot doesn’t come home from a late-night study group, David tries to locate his daughter by pouring over her online social media profiles.

Eventually, a detective (Debra Messing) begins to investigate the disappearance. She pops up regularly on David’s screens via FaceTime and appears in the movie’s occasional TV “breaking news” segments that appear onscreen to bridge some of the broader narrative transitions.

With so much reliance on scenes of David clicking through his daughter’s social media and reaching out to her varied contacts, “Searching” depends entirely on John Cho, and the actor delivers on every measure. Cho, outside of his titular work in the “Harold and Kumar” series, has often been underutilized, so it’s nice to see him crush such a centerpiece role. Cho’s inherent everyman charm makes his more somber and desperate scenes all the more relatable and devastating.

Messing is good too in a tricky role — she only usually appears to progress the investigation plot, but still must serve as an emotional volley to David. La also makes the most of limited screen time. Her subtle gestures and line deliveries on her character’s brief Internet video diaries serve an important purpose to David’s search.

Perhaps the movie has one plot twist too many. But credit Chaganty and his co-writer Sev Ohanian for managing to take “Searching” into so many narrative directions just from the careful juxtaposition of FaceTime conversations, texting interactions and good old-fashioned Internet research. Even if it takes the story one or two steps too far, the journey to that climax is genuinely exciting.

If the idea of watching a movie about Googling, texting and deciphering Tumblr blogs sounds like a slog, then, well, you’re probably in denial about your own Internet history and smartphone use. Regardless, the gimmick aspect of “Searching” quickly becomes secondary to the film’s success as a conventionally-effective thriller. The gimmick works because everything else does.

•••

Tyler Wilson can be reached at twilson@cdapress.com.

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