Shot solely from the point of view of phones and computers, Searching is a thriller that follows David (John Cho) as he frantically searches for his missing daughter, Margot (Michelle La).
Margot is a seemingly normal 16-year old high-school student. And despite the fact that her mother died when she was young, Margot's got friends, learns piano after school and seems happy. But David's opinion of Margot changes when she abruptly vanishes without a trace one night after attending a study group. In the early hours of the next morning, David misses several calls from Margot. This is the last time Margot is heard from.
David launches his own investigation into his daughter's disappearance. He contacts the police and a sympathetic detective, Rosemary (Debra Messing), is assigned the case. David unravels Margot's social media accounts and draws up spreadsheets with last known sightings of Margot. David's idea of Margot changes as he learns more about her and confronted by alarming possibilities from the police, he upends his life to search for Margot.
Directed by Aneesh Chaganty, Searching has got all the right twists and turns and some clever resolutions. But all of this is hard to disconnect from the film's central gimmick of being portrayed on screens. Searching isn't the first movie to do this: the 2015 film Unfriended used the same technique.
The gimmick makes for some challenges, as the audience is essentially looking at a blow-up of a computer screen for the entire film. A lot of the time, the filmmakers do well, such as in the opening scenes which cleverly establish the backstory of Margot's birth, childhood years and her mother's death. There are many other smart scenes, the best come during the big reveals and involve David's amateur detective work on the internet when he slots the pieces of the puzzle of Margot's disappearance into place.
At other times the need for the point of view to be through a computer gets a bit clunky. FaceTime is sometimes left on after a call so we can see what David is doing. A later scene involves David installing surveillance cameras, and the only real reason for this is to keep the action going within a screen.
The problem with Searching is that for all of its focus on tech and the premise that it is now so intertwined with our lives, it doesn't really say much about it. As the film progresses, it's revealed that David doesn't know as much as he thought he did about Margot - and it turns out that she has revealed more of her worries to total strangers on the internet than to her own father. But amongst the harried mystery of what happened to Margot, any comment about tech's influence on our lives gets muddled and ultimately forgotten.
Whether Searching is constrained or liberated by its self-imposed medium remains the big question. Disentangled from its format, the story of Margot's disappearance wouldn't be hefty enough. The story combined with the medium makes things a little more interesting.