2018 | rated PG-13 | starring John Cho, Debra Messing | directed by Aneesh Chaganty | 1 hr 42 mins |

In 2014, the cyber horror film Unfriended proved a surprisingly effective late-night B-movie taking place entirely on a laptop computer screen while a group of friends video-chatted, and ultimately were taken out by the ghost of a girl they cyberbullied. Unfriended: Dark Web dispensed with the supernatural element for a nastier and dumber laptop-set dead teenager movie that milked the unknown dark web fear of human trafficking for cheap thrills and a protagonist too dumb to root for. Now comes the computer screen-set Searching – and while lighter and very different than the Unfriended movies, it is the latest twist on a premise that producer Timur Bekmambetov seems determined to make work.

A gimmick in the Unfriended movies is that they are basically told in real time, the computer screen creating the illusion of seeing something without edits. Searching immediately ditches that storytelling shackle and shows us the different home screens of each member of the Kim family, David (John Cho), Pamela and young Margot. Cleverly creating these characters out of what we see on their screens, the movie opens with a montage of young Margot growing up, living out her life from Windows 7 to a modern Mac that sees her social media evolve from piano recitals to high school to expressing her grief as cancer hits her mother and splits apart the family. From her father’s perspective we see David trying to connect with his girl through emails and text messages until one day when she doesn’t come home and disappears.

Searching overall breaks down into 3 large parts: the first and most effective chronicles Cho’s father as he goes from scolding his daughter for not taking out the trash to realizing she hasn’t come home and then that nobody knows where she is. The disbelief and the desperation of the slowly setting realization that she didn’t just sneak away but is missing feels very real, made all the effective by the father/daughter relationship between Cho and Michelle La’s Margot. As David breaks open her laptop and searches social media for clues he also learns secrets his grieving daughter kept from him. It’s riveting.

The flm’s ability to span time opens up the story into a 2nd phase, the investigation, turning the story of a father’s search for his daughter into a media sensation. Touching on some Gone Girl media commentary the movie navigates through social media comments that naturally suspect David and brings in Debra Messing as the case lead detective working too slow for David’s liking. The third segment twists this formula into something interesting: a classic whodunnit. It’s here where the movie gets both it’s cheesiest and it’s most charming for me. We are suddenly surrounded by a cast of suspects with twists and red herrings and David hunting through photos in full police procedural mode. It’s quite fun.

Searching‘s heart is in the right place. It’s a sweet family film at core with a surprisingly strong story, but how it gets there from a cinematic perspective is where it feels off key. Director Aneesh Chaganty has a serious case of the first film yips. The quality of everything here is on the level of an indie Christian film like God’s Not Dead or Miracles from Heaven – those movies that are made less for the art of movie-making and more to push a message. Amid Cho’s pathos we also get some genuinely terrible moments were otherwise good actors reach a laughable level of camp as if Chaganty went for the worst take. I don’t know.

Searching has an amateur-quality execution but it is a huge leap forward in proving that a computer-screen can be the vehicle for a thrilling story. Like a grandchild of the Found Footage movie, this gimmick has a limited shelf life, but for what it’s worth, Searching works.

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