‘Searching’ Film Review: John Cho Searches the Web for Missing Daughter

Director/co-writer Annesh Chaganty’s debut feature cannily explores online identity in an IRL thriller

Sebastian Baron/Screen Gems

Our chronic dependence on electronic devices and their ubiquitous availability have fully seeped into contemporary narrative: Since the audience navigates their daily conundrums and mundane tasks aided by screens, so do many characters in television and film. Today it’s not rare to see a text bubble pop up in a movie to let us in on a conversation happening via instant messages or for a Skype call to be a relevant plot point.

In first-time director Aneesh Chaganty’s groundbreaking digital mystery “Searching,” however, this practice is maximized to previously untapped extremes. Computer interfaces stop being a storytelling accessory; instead, they offer the entire field of vision. The silver screen mirrors the leading man’s desktop — and later all other gadgets used during his mission — as if connected via HDMI cable.

Saturated green pastures and an idyllic blue sky in the opening shot announce we are in the Bliss default wallpaper of early 2000s Microsoft’s Windows XP. This is the Kim family’s computer where their precious memories are stored. Irreplaceable photographs, videos of momentous occasions, treasured recipes, and email exchanges are arranged in a poignant montage that leaps around between three accounts: David Kim (a heroic John Cho), Pamela (Sara Sohn, “Sense8”), and their daughter Margot (played as a teenager by Michelle La).

Intercutting a myriad of clips with supporting visuals and fitting excerpts for this introductory segment is a phenomenal editing feat from Nick Johnson and Will Merrick — their work throughout is exemplary — resulting in a concise conduit to dispatch exposition. Before “Searching” has hit the five-minute mark, we’ve already learned that Margot has been taking piano lessons since she was a young child; that her mother battled cancer, went into remission, relapsed, and, alas, passed away; and that David is silently struggling to attain closure.

Without warning, Chaganty negates any prospects of viewers interpreting technology as mere utilitarian instruments; their humanistic value always takes the spotlight. “Searching” is not interested in the machines and networks for their own sake, but observes the jubilation, anxieties, aspirations, and deviant behavior channeled through them. Screens here are an extension of the human psyche, and thus the film’s design avoids gimmicky simplicity.

Self-appointed “Father of the Year” David is under the likely inaccurate impression that he and Margot, now 16, enjoy an above-average relationship sustained by honest communication. They chat multiple times a day and watch “The Voice” together, but they never openly touch on the shared loss that has caused an unuttered fracture between them. Each mourns alone under the same roof.

It’s only when Margot goes missing following a late-night study session that the emotionally anesthetized parent reckons with the cruel realization that he ignores most aspects of his child’s life. At this point we switch to Margot’s laptop (a MacBook), which she left behind and is David’s sole portal into her social habits and, potentially, information on her whereabouts. Detective Dad deciphers passwords to access vital social media accounts, alarmingly unveiling the picture of a lonely girl concealing plenty of cryptic secrets. Margot, as he knew her, doesn’t match her online persona.

“Define ‘friends,’” one forthright adolescent requests of David during his amateur investigation, not an unfounded inquiry considering how superficial bonds born on the internet tend to be. Count how many Facebook contacts you’ve actually met in person and how many of those qualify as more than acquaintances.

Diligently working on the case, Detective Vick (Debra Messing, in a rare movie role) functions as David’s sounding board and unfaltering ally, even when desperation sets in and the once understated man is overrun with paranoia. Revealing anything more would spoil the engrossing process for the carefully planted details to blossom into mind-blowing revelations.

Still, an unsurprising outcome is how Cho’s heartfelt and wide-ranging performance transcends the intricate mechanics of this software-operated piece. Too often relegated to enliven supporting characters with his charismatic presence, the actor makes the most of this opportunity to display the subtlety of his skills as a father turned vigilante. Messing, who carries the second-most substantial part, plays a stoic variation on her turn in the crime comedy “The Mysteries of Laura”; she is ultimately convincing, even if one-note.

With the exception of the perplexing visual artificiality of multiple broadcast news videos in the third act — as opposed to the organic stylization of interactions meant to look like webcam footage — the execution in “Searching” is an anomaly in its inventiveness to find solutions that can keep us engaged in spite of the claustrophobic set-up.

Chaganty and co-writer Sev Ohanian refrained from facilitating a cautionary tale centered on the unspeakable dangers that lie ahead with every click. Their approach concentrates on experiences that are collectively understood in relation to modern artifacts and how they transform our codes of conduct.

Early on in “Searching,” self-doubt is implicit in a close-up of David typing and deleting a message for Margot about her mother. His face is not on camera, but the space bar moving back and forward is enough for us to understand. Similarly, the notion that an exclamation point can be misconstrued as anger makes for a comedic yet telling observation about our online language rules.

Unavoidably, “Searching” might prompt concerned adults to closely monitor their teens’ activity on popular websites and even beyond that. Nonetheless, one can hope for an outcome in which, rather than inspiring anyone to implement surveillance as a preemptive measure, this exceptionally astute suspense flick can persuade us to uphold compassionate dialogue as the best analog safety feature.