Solving the case of a missing teen solely through the latest technology. It sounds like a gimmick that’s impossible to sustain over 90-plus minutes (remember 2015’s Unfriended?). But director Aneesh Chaganty, in an exceptional feature debut, does the impossible, building a high-voltage, white-knuckle thriller told almost exclusively through smartphones, laptop screens, browser windows and surveillance footage. Searching is a technical marvel with a beating heart at its core, which makes all the difference.
John Cho (yup, Kumar’s buddy Harold) excels as David Kim, a widower living in San Jose, California, whose 16-year-old daughter Margot (Michelle La) hasn’t come home or answered his texts. Has she been catfished, kidnapped, even murdered? Did she take her own life? Enter Detective Rosemary Vick (a terrific Debra Messing), an expert in such cases who knows the advantages of keeping a Facebook camera on at all times. YouTube, Instagram, Tumblr, text and video messages also find their way into the mystery, as frantic father and hard-nosed cop hack Margot’s computer (a teen’s worst nightmare) and text her friends trying to piece together her whereabouts and hopefully save her life. Chaganty expertly uses Margot’s video library to reveal a stable day-to-day existence that fell apart when her mother died of lymphoma. What was David’s seemingly popular daughter doing on the dark web with strangers?
The suspense intensifies as dad and detective probe into secrets Margot meant only to keep to herself. David contacts his pothead brother, Peter (Joseph Lee), and a piano teacher who reveals she hasn’t seen Margot in six months. And is Rosemary telling him everything she knows? #FindMargot goes viral, with classmates pretending to be her bestie and haters starting the campaign #DadDidIt. Meanwhile, David goes rogue, installing hidden cameras in the homes of suspects. And we wait… until a trip to a nearby lake (thank you, GPS) turns up concrete clues. Even when more conventional storytelling elements intrude on the plot near the end, they’re not enough to dent the ratcheting momentum. In tandem with co-writer Sev Ohanian and wizard editors Will Merrick and Nick Johnson, Chaganty keeps the movie sparking with twists the audience never sees coming. Do we pay a price for living our lives on screens? Is the price worth it? As it should, Searching leaves you with questions that’ll keep you up at night.