Twenty minutes into Searching, after David Kim (John Cho) goes to bed, the screen goes dark. Then, suddenly, there’s a burst of color, as ribbons of light dance across the frame. It’s a screen saver, one anyone who’s ever used a Mac might be quite familiar with, and it’s a perfect model of tranquility until a notification starts flashing in the corner. David is getting a FaceTime call from his daughter Margot (Michelle La), followed by another, then another. He misses them all, and when he wakes up the next morning, she’s unaccounted for except for those three urgent notifications.
The mellow visuals of the screen saver, punctuated by the mortal terror that a child’s missed call can instill, are just one of the many ways Searching uses its unusual format to jack up the tension. Much like the horror film Unfriended, it plays out entirely on computer screens, cellphone cameras, and streaming-video footage. The camera might dart across the screen, zoom in, or cut to something specific like a text box, but it never turns toward the “real world,” as it were. It’s a gimmick that suits its subject matter quite perfectly, since the theme of Searching is the terror and wonder of the internet’s sheer size, and all the dark, unfindable secrets contained within it.
Searching is a mystery thriller, and a fairly mundane one at that. David is a widower raising the 15-year-old Margot (the film’s prologue charts her adolescence and her mother Pamela’s terminal illness, told mostly in video snippets). Their bond is strong but has been strained by Pamela’s death, and their last conversation before Margot goes missing is a strained FaceTime call, in which she tells him she’ll be out late at a friend’s house, studying for her AP biology final. David wakes up to those three missed calls, with no voicemail, and the news that she didn’t show up to school.
It is every parent’s worst nightmare, of course, intensified by the film’s technology-of-today visuals. David is so connected to his daughter, able to text or videochat with her whenever he wants, and yet he’s rapidly untethered, with her missed calls a haunting reminder that she was trying to tell him something but couldn’t. Quickly enough, the case gets so serious that a detective, Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing), comes aboard to command the search for Margot. It’s she who suggests looking through Margot’s laptop for clues to whatever was really going on with her. And that’s when Searching gets really, really good.
Unfriended, which was released in 2015 after a festival run, used the same screen gimmick to much gorier effect, chronicling the revenge of a bullied teen’s angry spirit on the students who tormented her. It was still grimly effective, a nasty fable of the double-edged world of social media (the less said about its sequel, Unfriended: Dark Web, the better). Like Searching, it was produced by Timur Bekmambetov, the Russian Kazakh director of action hits such as Night Watch and Wanted who has seemingly transitioned into the extremely specific world of computer-screen thrillers.
But where Unfriended delivered lurid shocks, Searching plays on much more commonplace fears. What could this vague text message mean? Who is this random boy commenting on so many of Margot’s Instagram posts? Why does she have a mysterious Venmo payment on her record? In isolation, any of these things might be easily dismissed, but with his daughter still unaccounted for, David begins to spiral, digging more and more deeply into Margot’s history and discovering how little he knew about his daughter. The twists in Searching come thick and fast, but so many of them hinge on unfounded assumptions that Margot might be buying something illicit, or hanging out with unsavory people—the kinds of assumptions many of us make whenever we use our computers.
Cho, whose increasingly rattled face is the only thing the viewer sees for much of the movie, does fantastic work in the leading role, avoiding horror-movie histrionics and instead letting David’s internal crisis mount slowly and painfully, so that when he begins to come apart at the seams it feels truly earned. Messing is steely and reliable as the detective who becomes part grief counselor, part online traffic cop. But the real star of the show is the writer/director Aneesh Chaganty, who stretches and squeezes his visual gimmick in any way he can find to serve what becomes an increasingly knotty puzzle.
The final act of Searching is perhaps one step too ridiculous, but the film never devolves into the supernatural, the occult, or anything profoundly violent. The mystery driving the story turns on a few very specific coincidences, but Chaganty lays his plot groundwork early (every browser screenshot or stray YouTube clip is loaded with Easter eggs hinting at what’s to come) and reveals each twist in some new, canny manner. Searching is a clever update on a housebound Hitchcock thriller like Rear Window, one that can make a series of Google searches play out like a high-wire action scene.