Searching is the latest entry in the ever-growing subgenre of computer movies, that is, movies that consist entirely of screen-captured images of computer (or in this case, any digital device) screens. Up until now computer movies had been dominated by horror outings like the surprisingly not-terrible Unfriended series, but Searching is a mystery-thriller through and through.
Through an opening montage that evokes the first five minutes of Up, Searching briskly and effectively gives us all the backstory we need: techie-dad David Kim has been a loving, supportive parent to his only child Margot, along with his wife Pamela. Now, sometime after losing Pamela to cancer, David struggles to fight the increasing distance between himself and teenaged Margot (Michelle La). After her study group runs late one night, Margot disappears, and David’s concern turns to panic as the police begin a missing persons investigation. Desperate to help in any way he can, David takes it upon himself (with the blessing of lead detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing)) to gather as much pertinent information as possible from Margot’s laptop, navigating an ever-growing web of classmates, trolls, opportunists, and conspiracy theorists as Margot’s case gains statewide media attention.
Though its core gimmick is relatively new, Searching’s bones are those of a classic thriller. Director Aneesh Chaganty is clearly well-versed in the genre, showing a seasoned craftsman’s understanding of how to build and maintain tension. There’s not an ounce of fat on this movie; every scene advances the story by parsing out new information on its central question. And thanks to a disciplined 90-minute running time, its breakneck pace never becomes exhausting. There are no doubt gaps to be found in the story’s logic, but there’s nothing damning enough to hamper its effectiveness, and the screenplay is so tightly constructed that it’s impossible to care.
Searching’s thriller aspects may be its strongest suit, but they’re nicely rounded out by an affecting (if not terribly original) emotional core. The story balances its pulse-pounding intrigue with achingly heartfelt interludes, and it’s John Cho – having aged somewhat since his “Harold” days, but no worse for wear – who’s chiefly responsible. Entirely believable as an emotionally protective – but not quite repressed – widower, his performance’s base level is a sort of pained self-restraint, but he has no problem delivering gut-wrenching shows of grief when the script calls for it. Debra Messing and Michelle La give reliable support, but this movie is frequently a one-man show, and Cho carries it with aplomb.
Unlike some of its contemporaries, Searching manages to keep its screen-bound conceit relatively unobtrusive, yet fully justifies its use. It’s far more cinematic than other movies of its ilk, unafraid of zooming in on focal points, panning across displays, and employing slickly-edited montages. By refusing to restrict itself to a single place, time, or screen, Searching stays true to its central device while simultaneously pushing its limits. Chaganty takes full advantage of the format’s possibilities, pulling off gambits that could never work in a traditionally shot film while avoiding the tedium that comes with watching a single computer screen in real-time. Searching finds its own kind of cinema in the pregnant pauses before hitting send; the tentatively hovering cursors and hurried deletions. Such moments are intimately recognizable in our modern age, but never before have they been captured so purely.