Review: 'Searching' finds satisfying screen-based thriller

John Cho stars as a father looking for his missing daughter in well-done techno thrill ride

Adam Graham
Detroit News Film Critic
John Cho stars in "Searching."

In the invigorating "Searching," a father pieces together the mystery of his daughter's disappearance using his computer, and the audience rides shotgun for the wild ride. 

"Searching" unfolds entirely on screens — on computer monitors, televisions and on mini-cameras — and is the best-example yet of what can be done in the emerging sub-genre of screen-based thrillers. 

The film and the mystery within unfolds like a really good episode of "20/20," spruced up with a modern, techno twist.

John Cho, graduate (survivor?) of the "Harold and Kumar" franchise, is David Kim, a father of a teenage daughter, Margot (Michelle La) in San Jose, California. 

Both are still dealing with the loss of Pamela (Sara Sohn), Margot's mother and David's wife, who died just as Margot entered high school. 

The film opens with a montage of home movies showing Margot growing up, and Pamela eventually succumbing to lymphoma. The use of video files and various computer log-ins over time resembles an uplifting Google commercial, one of those spots where Google positions itself as the keeper of your life's information (which is not entirely far from the truth). 

Then things turn darker. One night Margot, now a 16-year-old high school sophomore, doesn't come home. David awakens in the morning to find he missed two phone calls from her overnight. He tries tracking her down, but can't locate her, and he enlists the help of the police, headed up by detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing). 

As David's searches go deeper, through her social media accounts and tracking her online footprints, he realizes he didn't know his daughter as well as he thought he did. Was she lonely? Who are her friends? And why hasn't she been going to her piano lessons? 

It's a troubling prospect for any parent to dig deep into their child's life, especially in the age of social media. The frenzied pace at which David makes his discoveries only further shocks his system, and stokes the kinetic nature of the film's narrative.  

"Searching" is co-written and directed by Aneesh Chaganty, who has done commissioned work for Google in the past, and he clearly understands the language of online. He keeps "Searching" clipping along at a steady, exciting pace, and never falls into the trap of making the film feel like viewers are watching someone else play on their computer. 

The story's twists, turns and red herrings are believable, its revelations delivered in satisfying fashion. 

Things get a little bumpy at the end, but by that time "Searching" has more than earned its goodwill. 

The "Unfriended" series used a similar screen-based presentation to wax on the evils of online culture. "Searching" is more about the ways computers have become integral to our daily lives, and the ways our keystrokes say more about us than we are willing to even say ourselves.

That a thriller would come along utilizing these ideas was inevitable. What's unexpected is that it would be done so well.




Rated PG-13 for thematic content, some drug and sexual references, and for language

Running time: 102 minutes