The tech thriller Searching is a welcome surprise. Although the subgenre is new – a film told exclusively through modern-day technology (iPhones, laptops, hidden cameras, etc.) – Searching proves that with enough creativity, a project of this kind doesn’t have to play out like a gimmick.
A movie such as Searching, unfortunately, will be copied and re-copied for years to come until Hollywood studios have exhausted its originality – see the found-footage subgenre after The Blair Witch Project debuted almost 20 years ago. Other computer thrillers have hit theaters before Searching (2014‘s Open Windows, 2014’s Unfriended and the 2018 sequel Unfriended: Dark Web), but it’s safe to say that this film is much more inventive and strikes some important and sympathetic themes.
Directed and co-written by first-time feature filmmaker Aneesh Chaganty, Searching begins with one of the most effective setups of 2018 – a quick montage of the happy life of a small family over the span of a few years through home videos, social media posts and other online platforms. When it’s revealed early on that mom (Sara Sohn) has died of cancer, Chaganty and co-writer Sev Ohanian hook viewers emotionally as dad, David Kim (John Cho), and his daughter, Margot, continue their lives on their own.
By laying a strong foundation for a pair of characters we’re about to go through the wringer with for the next 90 minutes, Chaganty and Ohanian understand that without those opening scenes, Searching would only resonate on a visceral level. Instead, with these scenes, it’s much easier to sense the frustration and fear David conveys when 16-year-old Margot (Michelle La) goes missing after a late-night study session with friends.
Working with leading Detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing) to search for Margot, David starts doing his own investigating by logging onto his daughter’s laptop and poring through her online behavior to see if he can find any clues. However, with Det. Vick and David running into countless dead ends, they both worry their window for finding Margot alive is closing fast.
Like the best true-crime feature dramas and documentaries, Searching is a gripping mystery that features a handful of clever plot twists and an underlying feeling of dread that is unshakeable. Skeptical audiences might think a film like this would be limited by the method it chooses to tell its story, but with a smart script and a heartfelt father-daughter relationship at its core, Searching is an absorbing and unique achievement.